High-Rise review: “Tom Hiddleston is superb, but this is a missed opportunity”

There's much to admire, but little to like, about this blackly comic satire of multi-storey living from director Ben Wheatley

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★★★

At the start of this dystopian satire, a handsome, dishevelled man is casually spit-roasting a dog. He is covered in blood, and his apartment looks as though it has been trashed, but he seems completely unfazed by this state of affairs. What happened to this man? How did he get to this moment? In order to answer these questions, the film jumps back a couple of months, to a time before everything went wrong.

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We soon learn that the man is Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a well-spoken bachelor who has just moved into a swanky, towering apartment block. The story is set in the mid-1970s, but the building is stylish and relatively modern, offering a certain level of luxury to those who live there. Boasting a range of desirable facilities, it has a gym, a spa, a squash court, a swimming pool and a fully stocked supermarket. As far as some tenants are concerned, it has everything you could ask for – and more.

At the same time, though, many residents are unhappy with life in the high-rise. As power failures become a regular occurrence, the poorer tenants voice their complaints, protesting that they aren’t receiving the same standard of living as those on the upper floors. Before long, their frustration leads to a violent, building-wide conflict, as the apartment complex devolves into a hotbed of anarchy, destruction and murder. As one of Laing’s neighbours puts it: “It’s like everyone decided to cross some sort of line.”

Unfortunately, this is where High-Rise starts to lose its way. A trippy montage is used to depict the building’s transition – from luxury development to chaotic wasteland – and an argument could be made that this is a misstep. We see the decline taking place, but it feels too sudden. One minute, a handful of occupants are angry that their children have been turned away from the pool. The next, the corridors are littered with bodies and bin bags. 

From here, the story becomes increasingly messy and disjointed, as it hops from one unusual sequence to the next. Some of these are highly enjoyable – witness Laing dancing with a group of air hostesses – but there are times when the film is confusing and nonsensical. Why don’t any of the tenants move out when the violence escalates? Why doesn’t anyone alert the authorities? If questions like this are likely to bother you, then there’s a good chance that High-Rise isn’t for you.

On the plus side, the whole thing looks fantastic, and there is much to enjoy if you’re a fan of British film-maker Ben Wheatley. Like his previous films (Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England), High-Rise is funny and violent, combining dry, witty dialogue with moments of vicious brutality.

On top of this, it has some interesting things to say about modern society. Adapted from JG Ballard’s celebrated novel, High-Rise proposes that civilised human beings will revert to murderous savages if they are placed in certain situations. Using the tower block as a microcosm of society, it asks us what we might do – and who we might become – under extreme circumstances.   

As for Tom Hiddleston, he is quite superb as Laing, a charming, self-contained type whose detached personality enables him to survive when the bloodshed starts. Happily, Hiddleston is surrounded by a terrific ensemble cast, which includes Jeremy Irons as the building’s designer. Some of the other cast members struggle to register, but Sienna Miller is worth mentioning as a flirty, alluring single mother, while Luke Evans is on fine form as a confrontational rabble-rouser.

Sadly, though, it is hard to care about any of these characters, since the film keeps us at a distance throughout. High-Rise isn’t a bad movie – far from it – but it feels like a missed opportunity. By the end of the film, many of the survivors are disappointed with their high-rise experience. Regrettably, you might know how they feel.

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High-Rise is released in cinemas on Friday 18 March