Just been watching…(33)

High Rise (2015)

***Contains spoilers***

I was looking forward to this film. Directed by Ben Wheatley, it was to be the next in a row of successes for him, I was sure. I had greatly enjoyed the sinister ‘Kill List’, and delighted at the black comedy of ‘Sightseers’. This was British film-making too, with natural locations, and a very English feel. I looked at the pedigree of ‘High Rise’. From a novel by J.G. Ballard (‘Empire of The Sun’, and ‘Crash’) and boasting a great cast of British actors, including flavour of the month, Tom Hiddleston, as well as Jeremy Irons, Keeley Hawes, Sienna Miller, James Purefoy, and Bill Paterson.

The story is about a high-rise development, a vision of the architect, Anthony Royal. (Irons) He lives in the luxurious top-floor penthouse, which includes a rooftop garden, and even a horse for his wife (Hawes) to ride. The good-looking Doctor Laing (Hiddleston) arrives to take up residence there, and he is soon noticed by some of the attractive ladies resident in the tower. It becomes apparent that social status and wealth is represented by the floor that the person lives on. Those on the lower floors are mostly middle-class, and also mostly insufferable too. The higher the floor, the more privilged the resident, right up to Royal’s penthouse. This high rise is complete with everything necessary to establish a contained community. It has its own supermarket, swimming pool, and gymnasium. Other than when they go to work, the residents have no need to ever leave.

But Royal’s vision is flawed. There are problems with the power supply, resulting in frequent power blackouts, and lift failures. Rubbish remains uncollected, food spoils in the supermarket, and the inhabitants of the block have to resort to using candles and torches, as well as having to constantly walk up and down stairs to their apartments.

We have the usual scenarios of troubled families and individuals. Royal’s wife is neglected and unhappy, Hiddleston’s doctor is troubled by loss, and struggling at work. Many of the women are unusually promiscuous, and even Royal is finding it hard to cope with the increasing deterioration of his project. As conditions become increasingly worse, the residents revert to type. The rich tenants on the upper floors hold a series of increasingly debauched parties, eventually resembling some kind of alcohol-fuelled Roman orgy. There are attacks on some people, women are raped, and this group begins to take over most of the building, banning the poorer residents from parts of it, including the swimming pool.

The lower classes on the floors below eventually revolt, led by film-maker Richard Wilder, (Luke Evans) a man who resents those on the upper floors for their comfortable lifestyle. There is looting in the supermarket, as well as more violence doled out, as they take their revenge. There are no winners though, and we are left watching the surviving residents descend into madness.

I haven’t read the book, but I presume that this tower block, and the lives of its residents, is supposed to represent the failure of organised society. The book was set in the 1970s, and Wheatley stays true to this, with contemporary cars, clothing, hairstyles, and attitudes too. For me, that was one of the most irritating aspects. It would have been far more effective to update the time period, and to set it in the 21st century. Perhaps because they are playing in a period piece, many of the otherwise excellent actors revert to type too, with some wooden acting worthy of puppets, and delivery of their lines as if they are in some kind of spoof.

Much of the nudity, and occasional graphic sex, seems gratuitous to me. The same could be said for the violence, though that is no worse than you might see on TV. Most of the cast members are wasted playing caricature roles, and other than Irons and Hiddleston, none are really given enough screen time to display their talents. The flaws in the story are obvious of course, so presumably intentional. Why does nobody just leave the block and go to the local shops when the food spoils in their supermarket? Why are the police never called to investigate the violent attacks? Why doesn’t anyone think to inform the electricity company that they have no power? Of course, if all that had happened, there would be no drama, and no story.

We are led to conclude that the building itself has taken control of its residents, altering their personalities, and returning them to savagery. The building represents society, and the way it stopped caring about the poor and the weak. I didn’t buy into that, but as I said, I haven’t read the book. What I saw was an often clumsy delivery, embarrassing acting at times, and some nasty and unnecessary sex acts and violence. It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know, and it failed to entertain me. But don’t take my word for it. Many critics raved about this film, and continue to do so.

For further reading, check out this excellent article from Nandia Foteini Vlachou. She sums up this film in a very academic and interesting way. Here is a link.

“Architectures of Control”: Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise (2015)

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40 thoughts on “Just been watching…(33)

    1. Thanks, Pippa. You are too kind.
      Nandia’s article about the film is excellent. It echoes my thoughts, though in a far more erudite fashion.
      Best wishes as always. Pete. x

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  1. Excellent review. I feel like this is one of those films which is technically and thematically very strong but too chaotic in the narrative structure to really pin some emotion to the characters. I think the way its shot and acted is excellent but would have liked more of a build up from regular society to total anarchy.

    I actually watched it again the other day and it should be viewed almost like a black comedic sketch show with top actors. Once you see as fragments rather than a whole it’s kind of watchable in a car-crash kind of way. If you want something that makes more sense then Wheatley’s latest film FREE FIRE (2016) is far more accessible.

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    1. Thanks, Paul. I think that your observation about a ‘black comedic sketch show’ is spot-on. Perhaps it was the presence of Reece Shearsmith in the cast, but I was constantly thinking how much this film reminded me of the TV series, ‘The League of Gentlemen’. Had it been presented as something along those lines, I have no doubt I would have approached my viewing of it very differently.
      As for ‘Free Fire’ I am looking forward to seeing that.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m with you here, Pete. The film irritated me quite a lot (I even wrote an article about it! there are a lot of interesting elements, like for example contemporary – of the author’s – research about the impact of high rise housing to residents, I can post it here if you like). I believe that it is purposefully unrealistic, or non-realistic. I don’t think that the power failures are a result of a flaw in the design of the building; rather, they are meant to be inexplicable. The rotting fruit in the super market is equally a symbol of the moral decay that is slowly taking over the residents. I regard the whole film as a failed attempt to make an allegory of class warfare.

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    1. You seem to have felt much the same as I did about this much-praised film Nandia, though you explain it better than I did! I agree that the lack of realism was deliberate, and of course those other issues were meant to be allegorical. I just don’t think that they were well-handled in this production. I would of course be interested to see your article. Perhaps you would send a link, then I can add it to this post, for further reading.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not well-handled at all whatever the intentions, I agree completely. I failed to see what generated praise or genuine enthusiasm for the film…The article was not exactly a blog spot, it was published in an online journal of cultural inquiry, but if you don’t find it too ‘formal’ (it has some footnotes), here goes the link (you don’t have to insert it in the post, only if you like it – and it was very polite of you in the first place to suggest it, thank you): https://blindfieldjournal.com/2016/12/16/architectures-of-control-ben-wheatleys-high-rise-20151/. Best, Nandia.

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  3. As you point out, the real problem is with the set-up: the building is not isolated, and therefore the whole premise falls apart. Granting the building supernatural powers would destroy the sociopolitical statement the film is apparently trying to make.
    According to a Wikipedia article regarding the novel: “It does not take long for the occupants of the entire building to abandon all social restraints, abandoning life outside the building and devoting their time to the escalation of violence inside; people abandon their jobs and families and stay indoors permanently, losing all sense of time. As the amenities of the high-rise break down and bodies begin to pile up, no one considers leaving or alerting the authorities, instead exploring the new urges and desires allowed by the building’s disintegration.”
    Perhaps the author was banking on some kind of social hysteria stemming from freedom to exert one’s basic instincts, but it seems to me that there would still be outside scrutiny, and that at least one person would not fall prey to the new sociopolitical construct and eventually bring about its collapse. It would be interesting to see how the author justifies the scenario in his book, and how it’s all resolved. The problem with film is that it oftentimes fails to present the persuasive arguments that an author is able to put forth in a lengthy work, and, of course, film directors are notorious for altering (oftentimes defeating the logic of) a novel’s ending.

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  4. I quite like Tom but thanks for the warning. Perhaps one need to be in the mood for it. I thought you were going to recommend Attack the Block that’s pretty hilarious in a cheesy sort of way… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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