Film Review: High-Rise. 5/5 Stars.

 

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There is madness at large in the English character, a strange murderousness exemplified in any number of TV series concerned with police hunting down killers but this tendency toward bloodlust is perhaps best exemplified in ‘The Wicker Man’. This 1973 film celebrates with unhinged glee the dark heart at work beneath the veneer of that nations well-ordered society. Perhaps the greatest proponent English madness was the late Ken Russell whose view of this ‘green and pleasant land’ was filtered through a warped lens that hinted at a monstrous pagan monster at large in the soul of the this island.

Following in these illustrious footsteps is filmmaker Ben Wheatley and his writing partner and spouse Amy Jump. Wheatley and Jump began their career making YouTube videos and in the greatest of all possible dream scenarios their efforts gained them a huge following, awards and recognition.

Wheatley’s first feature was 2009’s ‘Down Terrace’, a low budget affair that was knocked off in nine days followed by 2011s ‘Kill List’. Receiving plenty of critical kudos and both films while engaging left me little impression and wondering what all the fuss was about. This perception changed when I watched 2012s ‘Sightseers’. Described as a black comedy, I found nothing especially funny about this story of a couple out on a caravanning holiday murdering anyone who managed to upset, insult or otherwise get in their way. What I did discover was a worthy successor to the great ‘Wicker Man’, an exposition of the kind cruelty and mad lust that propelled this small island nation into a world dominating super power.

‘Sightseers’ is notable for several things: a tightly drawn screenplay that investigates the English condition touching ever so subtly on class and social claustrophobia while demonstrating Wheatley’s growing confidence behind the camera. The framing of scenes is outstanding and his ability to tell a story both verbally and visually takes a considerable leap forward.

These themes are further investigated in 2013s triumphant ‘A Field In England’, a surreal dream fever of a film that proved Wheatley to be more than just a journeyman filmmaker. Here, in all its colours, was the kind of filmmaking that hints at genius, which brings us around to his latest, 2015s ‘High-Rise’ an adaptation of a J G Ballard novel of the same name.

J G Ballard could be described as a combination of Philip K Dick and William H Burroughs. A unique sort of writer, Ballard’s work spanned straight crime fiction, human drama (his best known work was ‘Empire of the Sun’ a biographical account of his time as a boy surviving in WW2 era Japanese occupied China) through sci-fi finishing and his speciality, a sort of esoteric psychology that explored fetishism, sex and society.

‘High Rise’ was written in 1975 documenting the social unrest of that era and is at heart an allegory about the infamous British class system. Within the High-Rise the class system is contained in microcosm and the struggles between the powerful elite and the masses are put under the microscope. Caught in the middle are the professional classes, quiet, compliant and somewhat seduced by the promise of upward social mobility, they possess the democratic power to usurp the ages old hierarchical system that has long defined British life if only they can be awakened from their slumber.

Life in this brutalist high rise is perfectly ordered with the working people living on the lower levels and the designer, the aptly named Royal played by a note perfect Jeremy Irons, inhabiting the top floor. The rest, a mixture of inherited wealth and the ambitious take pride in their proximity to the top floor, while the middle classes take up the rest of the space. These latter have some sympathy for those below but live in fear of the consequences of their empathy for those that maintain ‘Royals’ position are dangerously determined to quash all descent any chance of barrier breaking familiarity.

With ‘High-Rise’ Wheatley and Jump have created a fevered portrait of British social hierarchy and the political and educational system that sustains it. Covering the strikes and general social discontent that exemplifies this era Jump and Wheatley have cleverly factored in Margaret Thatcher and a sly commentary on laissez faire economics to create a compelling picture of the events that were to shape the next 40 years. (Of Note: the upheavals within the motor vehicle industry through this time are highlighted by the neatly laid out cars parked at the base of the High-Rise which makes detailed reference to the industry and the tensions that lead to its demise).

Stylistically the whole thing reads a little like a British version of ‘Mad Men’ and refers time and again to Kubrick whose influence is recognisable throughout. A tall order to walk in the steps of one of cinemas grand masters but Wheatley has not only followed Kubrick’s general template but has kept firm confidence in his own unique voice resulting in a film that is perilously close to a masterpiece, one that suggests Wheatley has the nous to join the hallowed ranks of the greats like Welles, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Ford and yes, Kubrick.

Tom Hiddleston, recently seen in the television spy thriller ‘The Night Manager’, excels in the lead and places himself easily within the ranks of compatriots and master character leads like Tom Hardy and Michael Fassbender and the rest of the cast play up the madness with delirious and commendable abandon. Luke Evans as the unruly Wilder stands out in particular as a latter day Oliver Reed type.

‘High-Rise’ is perhaps the best British film in decades and a worthy successor to iconic and other similarly deranged films like ‘Clockwork Orange’, ‘If’, ‘The Wicker Man’ and that handful of others that disseminate the British psyche with artful regard.

This is not an easy film to take in on one viewing what with its multi-layered narrative, sly commentary and visceral bloodletting but that said, wow…….. it’s breathtaking in its ambition and a giant kick in the arse for the British film industry whose  tendency of late has been toward easily consumed ‘middle of the road’ feel good drama/comedy. Well done Mr Wheatley, well done indeed. Superbly written and gloriously realised, this is a substantial feat of a film worth every second of your time.

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