There is nothing subtle about HIGH-RISE, a savage allegorical satire of manic energy and pointed symbolism. Based on the novel of the same name by J.G. Ballard, it stars Tom Hiddleston as an urbane neurologist about to discover his place in the social order, and Jeremy Irons as The Architect (how Masonic?), the emotionally constipated pseudo-deity who is about to be surprised when his design for living takes an anarchic turn.
The conceit is the titular building, 40 stories tall, wherein can be found all of life’s amenities, from a luxe spa to a market with a special on French baguettes and fromage that is never ending. The upper floors are for the upper classes, of course, with the suitably monikered Mr. Royal (Irons) occupying the penthouse that boasts a lawn, livestock, and the deliberately Marie-Antoinette-esque Mrs. Royal (Keeley Hawes in shades of red lipstick that cut like a knife). That she is first seen wearing an 18th-century costume is no accident, and while she never wonders why the lower classes don’t eat cake if they have no baguettes, she does face down a towering multi-layered pastry while saying the word “cake” with contemptuously posh enunciation.
Into this petri dish of social experimentation concocted by Mr. Royal arrives Dr. Laing (Hiddleston), a man so enamored of having been admitted to the building, and on the upper –middle 25th floor, that he is seen embracing the fluted concrete of his new abode. He will shortly be embracing his upstairs neighbor, Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), and playing surrogate father of sorts to her precocious son, Toby (Louis Suc). Perhaps it was the way she noted that, unlike most people, the doctor looks better with his clothes off that so charmed him. And, indeed, visions of Hiddleston in various states of déshabillé punctuate the action while offering a delicious foreshadowing of the revelation to Laing about the putative reason why he was admitted to the exclusive building at all.
Laing runs afoul, however, of the complicated rules, spelled out on placards that festoon the walls that govern the residents’ behavior. Those that are a result of custom and usage as understood by the older residents are even more problematical, from the proper disposal of refuse, to when an invitation to a party is merely for show. Even the special attention of Royal, who is delighted by Laing’s preference for squash over tennis, cannot spare him the snicker of the upper classes, and his attentions only fuel the resentments of those on the lower rungs (metaphorically) and floors (actually).
Selective power outages, uneven distribution of resources, and a rousing revisiting of primal antipathies create a perfect storm of unrest that grows to full-blown revolution with an alacrity that is equaled only by its viciousness. Even Laing, who maintains a buttoned-down dress shirt and tie throughout the chaos, albeit with rolled trousers over his sneakers, turns violent when challenged for the last can of paint in the building’s market. That it is a very pale shade of gray, and that his frenetic compulsion to color his walls at such a moment might be interpreted as whitewashing of some sort. Or not.
For all the dead-on jabs at society, bystanders debating the political theories of intervention as two people beat each other’s brains out, or the sang-froid meeting in the penthouse debating how best to dispose of the rebellion’s wild-eyed ringleader (Luke Evans), there are tantalizing riffs whose interpretation is as much about our own pre-conceived notions as anything else.
HIGH-RISE is not shy about showing very bad things happening to people, animals, and disembodied heads. This is a film that, like the rebellion, would very much like to get in your face with its message about society’s failings. Harkening back to the rawness of the kitchen-sink British dramas of the 1960s (John Osborne and Tony Richardson anyone?), as well as the saucy wit of that time from the likes of Richard Lester, HIGH-RISE is a full-throttle screed told with an elegant economy and a great deal of style that does nothing to detract from its considerable substance.