The aspirational residents of a new upmarket residential tower block engage in a war for power and resources. Society collapses in a mess of booze, violence and largely degrading sex.
High-Rise opens with central character Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) relaxing on his balcony after the chaos. The film then goes back three months to show the sudden collapse. It is based on JG Ballard’s 1975 near-future novel. Today’s London is full of rapidly growing residential towers for the rich so at first it seems surprising that the film makers have decided to set the film in a version of the 1970s rather than the modern world.
But director Ben Wheatley has created an arresting vision of yesterday’s future. This is a consciously pre-digital age, where all adults appear to chain smoke. It has the unsettling violent comic tone of 1970s films such as A Clockwork Orange. The building itself is a celebration of concrete. This society is proud of its thrusting progress. No one considers the consequences.
This high rise has been designed to be self-contained with supermarkets, gyms and a school. Social status is decided by your address — the higher your floor, the further up the social scale you are. This is a class system in one block, and no one’s name is insignificant. At the top, in the 40th floor penthouse, lives Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the architect who designed the block. Royal’s wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) has created a rural idyll on the block’s roof garden. She holds a costume party for the elite where everyone dresses as if they are in pre-revolutionary France, when everyone knew their place.
Laing lives on the upper middle class 25th floor, and becomes involved with Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) who has social connections going both to the top and the bottom. On the lower floor live Helen Wilder (Elisabeth Moss), heavily pregnant and trapped in her flat with her children, and roaming husband Richard (Luke Evans).
There are visual echoes of the Winter of Discontent, but Wilder is not a militant factory worker; he is an upwardly mobile TV presenter. As he makes a violent ascent up the building he is not challenging the hierarchy but trying to change his place in it. As time passes Richard Wilder becomes a brutal blood-covered rapist, but he is never more repulsive than the elite he loathes.
This is not a socialist fable. Ballard was concerned with the psychology of social breakdown and the weird attempts to maintain some kind of middle class English respectability as society falls apart. Laing’s surname recalls psychologist RD Laing, who examined the experience of psychosis.
High-Rise is not a complete success. It is somewhat let down by its later sections, where the film loses the book’s emotional detachment. But it is worth seeing and at its best it is a powerful condemnation of the logic that drives the modern world. It shows a future that created our present.