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The first third of High-Rise, the new movie based on the J.G. Ballard novel (he also gave us the autobiographical Empire of the Sun and the unautobiographical, we hope, Crash—no, not that Crash, Ballard gave us the one where people get turned on by auto accidents), has a nice quirky, what-the-hell sort of quality to its writing (Amy Jump, of Kill List and Sightseers) and directing (Ben Wheatley of ditto); they both seem to be having a great deal of fun, if nothing else.
Laing, a 30-something who likes to fall asleep on his balcony in the nude, moves into one of five of a set of state of the art apartment complexes that reach to the skies like the fingers of a hand. As he interacts with his neighbors, the conversation is realistic, yet off just a little. The actions of the characters are also realistic, yet off just a little. It almost feels like a kitchen sink version of a Monty Python sketch.
I more than suspect the whole thing is supposed to be allegorical with the high-rise an encapsulation of all the classes in England. Well, not quite, perhaps. The middle class live on the lower floors and the upper class live much higher, but the lower class seems restricted to a single building superintendent. While such dystopian allegories as Metropolis and Snowpiercer have no apparent middle class, High-Rise seems strangely void of a lower one.
At any rate, while the middle classes struggle to live paycheck to paycheck, the upper class have costume parties where the guests dress up in fashions from the court of Marie Antoinette before the guillotine falls.
In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be allegorical.
But at the one-third mark, things don’t quite go so well dramatically. The high-rise has its problems. The lifts stall, the electricity goes out. The middle-class claim it’s all due to something the uppers are doing at the expense of the rest. This isn’t exactly true. Everyone is actually sharing the misfortune, but sometimes perception is all.
It’s actually all due to the fault of the Architect, who lives on the top floor in a garden of Edenesque penthouse, complete with a horse, goat and trophy wife. I suspect he is a metaphor for God and the high-rise the less than Edenesque world we live in, less than Edenesque due to a faulty design.
Be that as it may, this does lead to an interesting idea: as the high-rise has more and more problems, the characters don’t try to do anything about it. Rather, everyone starts reverting to a savage state faster than those kids in The Flies.
At first this is an amusing idea. But as the chaos piles up and the characters lose more and more control over the situation, the filmmakers start losing control over the story as well, until everything stops making the remotest lick of sense. In the second two-thirds of the film, a lot happens, but to no clear purpose and the story simply stops going anywhere.
Tom Hiddleston portrays Laing, the new tenant. He plays a character who has the best body in the film, but is also the only one in the story, in fact the world, who doesn’t like to see him naked-go figure. Hiddleston has always had a rather bland personality on screen. Here, this blandness is a perfect fit for the part, a British everyman who doesn’t want to show any emotion.
With Jeremy Irons, less interesting than usual, as the Architect; Elizabeth Moss as a very fertile and pregnant tenant; and Sienna Miller, the woman everyone wants.