High-Rise: Film Review

HIGH-RISE may well be my film of the year. It certainly won’t be for everyone; it isn’t the traditional action-based fare that we usually see this time of year, and it drifts a bit close to the arthouse end of things to be everyone’s cup of tea. But it doesn’t have nearly as narrow a target audience as some films I’ve seen this year. I would very much encourage anyone with even a vague interest in film to go see it.

High-Rise can be summed up fairly simply: Dr. Robert Laing, played by Tom Hiddleston, moves into a new high-rise apparent in search of a fresh start. This apparently is part of a pioneering new development, designed by the architect, Mr Royal (Jeremy Irons) to be not only a comfortable place to live, but also to be a crucible for social change. The building not only contains living spaces, but a market, a swimming pool, fully equipped gym and a cinema, and represents all of society. Everything a person could need, condensed into a single building. However, as with society itself, the high-rise is not free from stratification and conflict, in this case manifested very much literally, with one’s wealth corresponding to the floor one lives on, with those who are better off living on higher floors.

The central conflict of the film is portrayed as almost inevitable, with small problems escalating and inciting conflict between many of the residents, exacerbated in no small part by their own hedonism. This conflict, which leads to rapidly worsening conditions within the building, is very much the central focus of the film, with not only the cause of the conflict but also the reactions of various characters to it. Some, when faced with the injustice of life in the building, retreat into the only ways they know how to solve problems, others prioritise the safety of their family or retreat into their own passions and interests to distract themselves from the events surrounding them, while the wealthiest of residents seem almost unaware that anything is amiss.

High Rise Tom Hiddlestone

Hiddleston in action in High-Rise

One of the core beauties of the film is the many ways one can choose to read it. Is it a simply critique of Thatcherite consumerism as some critics have claimed, or is it a more complex critique of inequalities resultant from power in the hands of a state removed from the needs of those less well off? There are so many interesting things in this film and so many interesting readings, from the notion of the building as organism or a mind, or comments on work-life balance and how it is influenced by social and economic class, and a possible critique of the nature of the concept of a middle class.

Not only is it a thought-provoking film, but it is also beautifully shot, with a care which feels as if every image is laden with rich meaning and symbolism. The building itself too is laden with meaning, not only in the changing states of individual rooms; from the very beginning, the brutalist architecture style merged with elements of art deco sends a very interesting message about the envisaged purpose and nature of the building. (As an aside, for an interesting discussion of brutalism I recommend “Hard To Love A Brute”, an episode of the design podcast 99% Invisible)

The film’s soundtrack, scored primarily by Clint Mansell, features the first new recording by Portishead since 2009, and a cover of ABBA’s “S.O.S.”. Not only does the soundtrack handle all of the heavy lifting a good soundtrack should – serving to foreshadow later events, re-contextualising current events and reinforcing themes and character traits – but it does so in deeply pleasant ways, and is a pleasure to listen to.

Prospective viewers should be aware that the film very much earns its R rating, with scenes of drugs, sex, violence and sexual violence. While it is totally understandable that these features alone will make watching High-Rise undesirable for some, none of the uses of these elements seems gratuitous or excessive. The closest the film comes to this is a scene involving a sexual assault, which while it’s possible it could be cut without any ill effects, is in service to a number of character building elements and themes so, to me, doesn’t seem gratuitous.

Should you see High-Rise? Probably, I’d say its it’s certainly worth a look for any fan of cinema