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3 out of 5 stars

Ben Wheatley's beautifully-crafted JG Ballard adaptation is deliciously retro but tough to connect with

Joshua Rothkopf

Time Out says

Ben Wheatley’s ferociously literal take on JG Ballard’s teetering 1975 social satire is an uncompromising adaptation of a novel that might have benefitted from a total refurb. Like Paul Thomas Anderson’s 'Inherent Vice', it's an exquisite testament to cinema’s capacity to serve the written page. But is such loyalty always to a film's benefit?

RECOMMENDED: Ben Wheatley reveals six objects that inspired the look of 'High-Rise'

The first surprise is Wheatley’s decision to set the novel’s futuristic scenario – residents of a swanky apartment building devolve into class-warring savages – within the book’s mid-’70s moment. Maybe the presence of mobile phones would have punctured Ballard’s fragile concept, which is already a little arch and dated. Whatever the reason, the result is gloriously retro: fitted three-piece suits, shagadelic furnishings and a Moog-satured score by Clint Mansell make the whole film feel like a Pink Floyd album cover come to life. 

Adding much-needed affability is fine-boned Tom Hiddleston as Dr Robert Laing, new to the building and caught off-guard by his sexually voracious upstairs neighbour, Charlotte (Sienna Miller). Robert is soon invited to the thug-protected penthouse where, in a surreal 40th-floor garden complete with swaying trees and a galloping horse, he meets the complex’s purring architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), whose confidence in his 'crucible of change' will come to be shaken. Snobbery and animalistic urges eventually collide – a Ballard speciality – as the lower floors begin complaining and people start swan-diving off the balconies.

Wheatley does an inspired job with the buildup to his midfilm climax, a rowdy kids' party that spreads like a virus into the reserved swimming pool area, resulting in a dead pet, multiple humiliations and a scary amount of property damage. But then, in dutifully hitting its marks, 'High-Rise' becomes monotonous – a prisoner to its own gruesome escalation. You begin to hunger for Ballard’s rare bits of humour (Robert narrowly avoids getting flung off the roof by Royal's intervention: 'He owes me a game of squash!'), yet the tone sours quickly. Portishead contributes a chilly synth version of ABBA’s 'SOS' – a song used throughout – but the movie ultimately feels both too glib and too cut off to resonate beyond its chaotic interiors.

Release Details

  • Release date:Friday 18 March 2016
  • Duration:112 mins

Cast and crew

  • Director:Ben Wheatley
  • Screenwriter:Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump
  • Cast:
    • Tom Hiddleston
    • Jeremy Irons
    • Sienna Miller
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