The Empty Balcony: High-Rise

High-Rise, director Ben Wheatley’s and screenwriter Amy Jump’s adaption of the novel by J.G. Ballard, sure looks good. The photography is a slick imitation of cinema from the 1960s and ’70s. Cinematographer Laurie Rose muted the palette somewhat. It’s not the type of desaturation made popular for a short time by Saving Private Ryan, but more resembles natural color decay. The blues have been turned down, making the overall color temperature quite warm. Whether this was a stylistic choice only, I cannot say, but a great deal of the mood of this film is established by the way it was shot. It flirts with clinical precision, but falls short, mostly because it’s easy on the eyes. So, like I wrote, High-Rise looks good, but I had a hard time figuring out what was happening on screen. Eventually, I had to set any frustrations aside and just go along for the ride.

High-Rise stars Tom Hiddleston as Dr. Robert Laing, a new resident of a brand new tower block in a dystopian England that, I think, exists some time in the ’70s. It’s a future tale, but one that takes place in the past. High-Rise is what people in the ’70s thought the ’80s were going to be like.

The other people in the tower have segregated themselves by the upper and lower floors, creating class stratifications that eventually lead to violence and anarchy. The instigator to all the conflict is a lack of power in the building, what Royal (Jeremy Irons), the architect of the building, characterizes as growing pains.

The tension explodes quickly, almost too quickly for Wheatley to capture on film. One minute everything is seething below the surface, and the next, the building has become the island from Lord of the Flies. The change is so abrupt that I was left wondering what happened to the second act.

I’m not sure I hold with treating so much of the plot like flyover states, but it isn’t a fatal flaw. What it does do is make the film somewhat of a mind-fuck. What is really going on in this building that is turning otherwise normal people into savages? How can a lack of electricity cause men to turn into scavengers and hunters and women to do all the laundry in the pool? Most befuddling, why in the world doesn’t Laing just move out? Of all the people in the film, he is least comfortable with the situation. For a time, he appears to be the only sane person left. He dreads returning home from work to the chaos of the tower block, yet he continues to come back. Why?

I haven’t read the source material. Perhaps it was a biting commentary on the state of capitalist Britain in days when everything seemed to be going wrong on the other side of the pond. Maybe it was a commentary on the UK’s persistent and frustrating class system. If either of these is the case, those lessons were lost in translation from book to film. This film appears to be all about chaos, without rhyme or reason. The denizens of the tower block are never shown to be nice people, but just because someone isn’t nice, doesn’t mean they’ll cook a person’s dog over a spit.

This film is confusing. There doesn’t seem to be a basic theme to it or a point. But despite that, it’s a good film. Wheatley got good work out of his cast. Top to bottom, there wasn’t a bad performance, which is impressive, considering Sienna Guillory (who stank up the screen in a couple of Resident Evil flicks) is in the cast.

Maybe, after a time, it will all click and I will understand what I just saw. Perhaps I’ll even read the book. Until then, I won’t let it bother me. It was enough for me that High-Rise was worth watching.