18 April 2016

Film Review: High-Rise

Review written by Tom Newsom

The most incredible thing about the film High-Rise is that I ever managed to see it in the cinema at all. I had been looking forward to it for months, the project catching my attention back when it was being filmed. But I wasn’t able to pin down a trip to a cinema miles away when it was released back in March. A delayed, limited release at my local cinema has meant I was able to finally go. But not before more than one friend had seen it, and both independently had hated it, with one declaring it “the worst film I have ever seen”.

So of course, that meant I had to go and see it for myself. And I noted afterwards, in the small screening I was in, two people walked out halfway through. Not me though, I loved it, more than I should have done.

I’ve seen Ben Wheatley’s previous two films Sightseers and A Field in England - of which this film feels a piece with - in addition to this work on Doctor Who in 2014. (I’m not itching to see previous film Kill List, I have to say, as it’s meant to be terrifically scary). He has set himself out as a new breed of auteur - or auteurs, working in partnership with screenwriter and co-editor Amy Jump, who has also written, and somehow adapted, High-Rise.

It may have bigger visuals, and a bigger cast and budget than his previous, but it definitely feels like a Ben Wheatley film - a particular strain of darkness, immediately apparent in the first few minutes of the film. It’s blackly comic, often quite funny, with shocks that should hopefully fill you with awe, rather than disgust, and a bold explanation of thematic territory.

It’s adapted from a novel by JG Ballard, an author whose style feels like a perfect fit. It’s dystopian, a sort of science fiction, linking together the darker sides of human nature with the bright new tower block accommodations. The masterstroke with this film was setting it not in a shiny, non-specific future, but in the mid 1970s. It resonates in every aspect of the finished film - it’s incredibly stylish, decadent; the architecture is perfectly bleak and brutalist, and the residents’ trip into barbarism is recognisably, comfortably signposted by the excesses of history - the sexism and hyper masculinity, the flowing alcohol and dissatisfied workers. And, of course, the British class system, which is at the core of the plot: upper class at the top of the skyscraper, lower class down below, arguments and snobbery in the contained space leads to chaos. Setting it in the past makes it less overtly political and easier to swallow, allowing the high style and increasing absurdity.

There is so much in this film to love. The visuals stand out - they usually do for me - not just the style of the design, or Laurie Rose’s high art cinematography, but also the outstanding practical and visual FX on the film, some of the best I’ve seen (the menacing tower itself, the soon to be infamous shot of a head getting dissected). The cast list is amazing, led by Tom Hiddleston’s composed maniac everyman, but a real ensemble. The direction is spot on tonally; the production is quite something considering the scope of the film. The editing is sometimes ambitious in its rhythmic cutting between scenes, but is often invisible. The music felt sparser but vital. It’s a film world to lose yourself in.

As the characters delve deep into the mad, the narrative appears to lose its way also. The ending lacks the focus it needs to be truly satisfying. It’s as if there’s glimpses of a strong plot in there, but it’s buried under the opaque, time (and geography) shifting editing. I could see why some people would come away thinking the film was terrible - for those who didn’t enjoy it, who didn’t get sucked into the film’s hypnotic spell, a more descriptive word would be nonsensical, perhaps even pointless. And that’s aside from the sex and language and increasing violence.

This disconnect is well expressed for me by a sequence which acts as the turning point of the chaos, a frenzied montage of shots, bridging the descent into madness of the central characters. It repeats images from before, whilst leaping forward to the point in time where the residents’ savagery has escalated to even more creative levels. At this stage, the film will either convince or it will leave you way, way behind - as it bridges the huge leap of disbelief suspending required. Have all these people stopped going to their day jobs? Why hasn’t everyone just left? From this point, I found it best to forget the logic.

Even if the film isn’t totally successful, it’s definitely highly memorable - quotable, visual, faintly shocking too. I’ve got no clue how successful an afterlife this film will have - critics’ reviews have been mixed but generally praiseworthy - but it’s definitely a film you should seek out and experience.

No comments:

Post a Comment