There’s a particular sub-genre of sci-fi/horror called “cosy catastrophe”, wherein a set of middle-class protagonists have to find their way through a sudden world-changing crisis whilst still maintaining as close to a comfortable middle-class existence as possible. John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids is a classic example. I’d like to posit a sub-genre of this sub-genre called the “cosy dystopia” in which middle-class people descend into primitive, violent behaviour, such as in Kenneth Cooke’s Wake In Fright and its excellent and unsettling film adaptation.
I bring this up because recently I watched High-Rise, a 2015 film directed by Ben Wheatley and starring Tom Hiddleston. I bought it mainly because I like Tom Hiddleston (thanks to Marvel Studios for his rise to international stardom) and because it was set in 1975. Tom Hiddleston in flares? What could go wrong?
Well, if you’re a resident of the eponymous high-rise, then everything, as it happens. Based on a speculative sci-fi work by JG Ballard, the film examines what happens when society decays inside an apartment building. This building has forty floors, supermarkets, gyms, a pool, and all variety of mod-cons like automatic garbage chutes, built-in appliances and the rest. The class structure is a microcosm of British society – the lower levels contain working-class people, and ascends up the ladder the higher the floor number. The amenities are such that, except for going to work, residents need never leave the building. The cosy dystopia arises from two things: the residents’ developing disinterest in the outside world, and the consequences of running a micro-city on the British power grid of 1975. What begins as a series of competitive parties between the upper and lower echelons decays over three months into destructive, violent anarchy with middle-class people like Hiddleston’s Dr Robert Laing stuck, well, in the middle.
Hiddleston walks emotionlessly through the film with just his trademark wry smile occasionally betraying Laing’s feelings. This is significant as it displays how quickly even the most well adjusted people can descend into anarchy, just like in Wake in Fright. Wedged between the upper and lower classes, Laing is a personality-lite cipher who strives to make as few waves as possible and just get on with his life. He even appears to have just one outfit in his wardrobe. Alas, the high-rise won’t have it, and soon enough he is fighting people in the supermarket for the last tin of sky-blue paint so he can finish decking out his apartment. Hiddleston manages this descent into frenzy quite well. He maintains Laing’s even-tempered character even as he too lowers himself to violence and hedonism like the rest of his peers.
The supporting cast is peppered with recognisable faces – Jeremy Irons is the unhinged architect, his crazed and unfaithful wife is portrayed by Keeley Hawes (Spooks, Ashes to Ashes), one of the working-class mothers is Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), and her deadbeat husband turned leader of the working-class revolution is Luke Evans (The Hobbit Trilogy, Fast and Furious 6 and 7, and Gaston in the live-action Beauty and the Beast remake). The focus of much of the film’s male attention is Laing’s upstairs neighbour, played by Sienna Miller.
The production itself is laden with surreal symbolism. Everyone files in and out of the building to and from work at the same time at the same pace. Signs that this homogeneity is collapsing begin with dream sequences and battles over car parking spaces, and continues with a montage of Laing’s increasingly anguished facial expressions on the drive to and from work. The map of the estate’s gas, water, and power amenities resembles a brain scan of a psychotic episode. The music is strange and laden with effects-driven filtered orchestra – it’s by Clint Mansell who wrote the scores to many of Darren Aaronofsky’s weird films so this makes sense. The cinematography is sexy and surreal, and takes full advantage of the lavish 1970s-styled sets. Hiddleston’s beautifully tailored grey charcoal suit (more cipher symbols) is not particularly 1970s save for the flared trousers – this is in contrast to the garish wide lapels, long collar points and bright colours on everyone else’s clothes.
Most negatively, the story has a particularly unpleasant attitude towards women. The male leads treat the women mostly with disdain, and as sex objects (often violently). The one woman who has control of her own sexuality (Sienna Miller’s character Charlotte) ends up paying for it at the hands of Luke Evan’s character. There are signs that this nastiness is turning around when at the end we see the architect’s wife has taken control of the estate project and is working with the other female characters of the film in conference towards improving it but the fact remains that most of the film treats women like dirt. I understand this all as a plot device (the men are the worst people in the film) but the film does tend to linger a little too long on shots of battered and screaming women. In the past I haven’t usually approached these sort of subjects in my reviews and I feel like I’ve done it hamfistedly here, but it was particularly jarring when watching the film.
I have difficulty deciding whether or not I can recommend the film. It’s splendid from a production aspect, and I can’t fault any of the performances. It was certainly a gripping and engaging watch, though broadly I think that the absence of council-estate apartment blocks in Australia makes the film less resonant here than it would be in the UK. The sheer unpleasantness of the last act, and the uncertainty with which the film treats its ostensible secondary protagonist (Luke Evans’ character – is he a socialist hero or a brutal rapist? I don’t care what the film thinks, you can’t be both) makes it a challenge. On the whole I’d say if you have two hours to kill and enjoy looking at well-made films, then yes, give it a watch, but be aware that it is thoroughly mean-spirited. Ultimately the dystopia remains, and the final shot is accompanied with a voiceover of Margaret Thatcher’s “there’s no such thing as society” speech. What does it all mean?