Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Published in 1975, the year Margaret Thatcher rose to leadership of the Conservative Party, High-Rise was first optioned by producer Jeremy Thomas in that decade but it has taken forty years for it to reach the screen, tragically appropriately during the second era of Thatcherism presided over by her bastard stepchild David Cameron.
It is from director Ben Wheatley (Sightseers, A Field in England, Deep Breath) working from a script by Amy Jump, that it has finally been brought to the screen, bold, uncompromising and fully prepared to be damned in all its unrepentant glory, a portrait of hubris, arrogance, selfishness, vanity and deceit crammed into a forty storey crucible of reinforced concrete, steel and plate glass.
Recently moved to a newly completed high-rise block of flats, the first of an expanding complex still under construction, he sunbathes on his balcony on the twenty-fifth floor, the perfection of his naked flesh an unabashed contrast to the uniform sterility of the apartment blocks, soulless grey concrete boxes with all the modern conveniences of the decade that taste forgot.
Immediately above him is Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller, Stardust, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), single mother acquainted with everyone, only on the twenty sixth floor but a social climber determined to go higher. She has a suitor whom she blocks, documentary filmmaker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans, Immortals, The Raven, Dracula Untold), sending him back down to the lower levels to his wife, heavily pregnant “armchair environmentalist” Helen (Elisabeth Moss, Invasion, Mad Men).
Richard also wants to go higher, to the penthouse to meet the architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons, Inland Empire, Eragon), but it is Robert who received the summons via Simmons (Dan Renton Skinner), intimidating building supervisor and Royal’s right hand man and strong arm, who takes Robert via private mirrored elevator to the fantasy realm of the architect’s terrace garden, while forty floors below lies a muddied wasteland criss-crossed by the tracks of industrial equipment.
Crafted out of pristine retro-chic, Wheatley’s recreation of that decade of despair, deprivation and troubled changes is hypnotic and terrifying in its accuracy, polyester slacks, wing collars, runaway moustaches, mutton chops, maternity tents, floral patterned knick-knacks and chain smoking, an abandoned fleet of boxy cars clogging up the car park to the horizon, children’s parties of jelly and ice cream and helium balloons, adult parties fuelled by alcohol and drugs and one step away from becoming either a furious orgy or a furious brawl.
The design of this towering block inspired by those landmarks of dystopian cinema of the seventies with which it shares the neighbourhood, the violent nihilism of A Clockwork Orange, the hedonistic abandon of Zardoz, the architectural spectacle of Rollerball in which the audience become spectators, complicit in what unfolds by their inaction. As much a presence in the film as was Hill House in The Haunting, it presides over everything, twisting perception and distorting desire, turning people against each other.
“How’s the high life?” Robert is asked: “Prone to fits of mania, narcissism and power cuts,” he responds. As shortages begin to destabilise the lower floors and the upper floors begin to squander resources, Royal, flushed with the success of his French aristocracy themed costume ball, the epitome of excess before the fall, responds with the foresight of sheltered privilege and entitlement: “Healthy competition is the basis of a thriving economy. We must throw a better party than the lower floors.”
Where Snowpiercer was revolution in a segregated society in an enclosed space driven by the illusion of choice, this is a descent into anarchy and savagery largely driven by the brutal and predatory Wilder who sees bloody retribution as the only way to right the injustice he suffers.
Evans is better here than in any of the roles he has been offered by Hollywood, while lord of the (high) flies Irons is brittle and blinkered, sitting atop his ivory tower in his black leather sofa in the white shag-pile carpeted conversation pit, his decadent disconnect matched by Hiddleston’s calculating reserve as Laing, unflappable, determined, observing but an outsider on every floor.
Following the shocking violence of Kill List and the hallucinatory abstraction of A Field in England, High-Rise is undoubtedly Wheatley’s best film to date, but although it will garner him much attention and praise it will be a hard sell to a wider audience, nor is its caustic condemnation of unfettered capitalism likely to make him any friends in high places.