As a person who lives in an apartment building, I must admit that it’s something of a curious community to be part of. You get to know a few people, you learn to recognize many more faces (even if you don’t know their names), and you feel a strange sense of placement depending on the floor you inhabit. You’re nestled together like books on a shelf, and you rarely seem to notice the others that surround you unless they are being disruptive.
It’s a situation that almost begs to get out of hand.
HIGH-RISE is the story of a tower block on the edge of London.
As our story begins, a doctor named Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is moving into the building’s twenty-fifth floor. The complex has everything one could want or need; entertainment, social activities, shopping and supplies. Basically, aside from going to work to earn a living, there is no need to ever leave.
Laing quickly drifts into the orbits of his neighbours. For starters, there’s the single mother upstairs – Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller). Mum to a curious lad whose father isn’t around, Charlotte very much likes the look of Laing and doesn’t waste much time in making her intentions known.
A few floors below, there’s Richard Wilder and his pregnant wife Helen (Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss). The couple seem a few social slots below Laing – further underlined by their home being several floors below him – and yet, they seem to be more level-headed about the community around them and what their role in it may be. Richard, especially, seems attuned to the position he’s been put in and wastes little opportunity to rebel…be it quietly or with great deals of noise.
At the top, though, is Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). This character with the least-subtle name is the building’s architect and lords over all from his perch in the penthouse. Royal and his wife throw lavish parties, remain isolated from the unwashed masses below, and live a rather absurd and ostentatious life.
When Laing is summoned to the penthouse one day to meet with the architect, he gets momentary illusions that he has arrived. Days later though, his prompt ejection from a dress-up party being thrown by the lady of the house tells him the opposite in no uncertain terms.
Days later, life at the high-rise begins to turn. The power begins to cut in and out, fresh water and food become scarce, and the social order begins to crumble. The good doctor watches as the upper class close ranks and the lower tier begin to scrape for their very lives.
We watch and wonder which side he might align himself with. We watch and wonder which side will claim him. We watch and wonder how long such anarchy can carry on.
Front and centre in this film is Tom Hiddleston. He’s not really required to stretch in this film – but then he seldom is. What’s most interesting is watching the way he responds to what he encounters from floor to floor, and behind door after door. His emotions rarely rise above a simmer, but in the face of such absurdity, one wonders if we would have the equilibrium to keep it together when faced with the same.
As Laing, Hiddleston always seems to be finding the sweet spot between being accepted into a greater collective, and doing what’s best for himself as an individual.
It’s almost sick to admit this, but there’s a twisted sense of Schadenfreude that arrives with seeing the actors cast in these roles struggle so hard in the face of the changing world order around them. These are, after all, beautiful men and women whose faces grace magazine covers, and whose social lives are the conversation topic of gossips the world over. There is no suit that looks bad on them, no shade of lipstick that doesn’t suit. And yet, if any catastrophe like this ever came down – they would be just as screwed as the rest of us.
These rich and beautiful people might live on the highest floors of the tallest buildings, but they sure as shit don’t get to die there.
However, it’s almost as if this film knows how much sick delight we would get in watching the well-to-do get taken down a peg, and it refuses to let us enjoy the moment. We are tied down and made to witness the physical abuse, the pure chaos, the drastic measures, and numbed emotions. It’s as if we are Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but instead of beating the violence out of us, it’s our sense of spite that needs to go…
…and having the spite beat out of us is not a pleasant experience.
HIGH-RISE is a bit of a beautiful mess. Seeing Ballard’s concept come to life is arresting; a garish nightmare about taking the entire class structure and stacking it up in one tall single column. The way it combines modern sensibilities with bygone style just goes to underline that the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is not a new divide…nor will it ever be. However, time and again the film seems to linger too long. It isn’t satisfied showing us how rotten the apple has become, it wants us to choke back every last spoiled and disgusting bite.
That rotten feeling we have in the pit of our stomachs when the apple is eaten? It’s apt. It’s also not the sort of feeling most want at the end of two hours in the cinema.