High-Rise (15)

Three stars

Dir: Ben Wheatley

With: Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons Runtime: 119 minutes

BEN Wheatley has a strong claim to the title of the most original British director working today. From crime drama Down Terrace and the horror Kill List to bleak comedy Sightseers and A Field in England, set during the English Civil War, he has been an inventive master of every genre he has surveyed.

High-Rise, adapted from the 1975 novel by JG Ballard, finds him working with a larger budget than before, and a more stellar cast, with big acting beasts Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons to the fore. But is bigger and starrier in this case better? Only to a certain extent. While Wheatley works a visual marvel in creating a veritable Trump Tower of dystopian mayhem, the politics of the piece are more bungalow-like.

Tom Hiddleston, currently to be seen in BBC One’s Night Manager, plays Dr Robert Laing (make your own connections), a new tenant of the titular block. As prime an example of Sixties brutalist architecture as your worst nightmare could conjure, this high-rise represents something of a new start for a man keen to leave the past behind.

Laing soon finds that the tower block is ordered into strict strata, with the lower classes on the first floors, the middle classes in the middle, natch, and the creme de la creme floating in the penthouse suites. Everyone is meant to be one big happy family, but the higher up one goes, the better and more comfortable life becomes. With his good looks, charm and obvious means, Laing is destined to be upper floor material.

Given such a setting, Wheatley could have gone a touch Dark Knight Rises and tried to add a glamour and sheen to the grimness. But he resists all such temptations. His tower block from the off looks like a forbidding place to inhabit, and that is before things start to get, well, interesting.

Presiding over the block, like the swankiest head of the tenants’ association imaginable, is Anthony Royal, known to all as “The Architect”. The suave Royal has the most marvellous apartments, furnished with every mod con money can buy. Up here, life is sweet. Down below, however, the problems are only just beginning. Power cuts occur, food begins to run out, one floor picks a fight with another, the place is falling apart. Accompanying the breakdown in social order is a meltdown of morality in general. Soon, life in the once pristine and efficiently run high-rise starts to look like the last days of the Roman empire made vertical.

Wheatley captures all this superbly. He is a natural born anarchist, willing to push his characters and the audience beyond their comfort zones. It seems as though anything could happen in Wheatley’s world, which makes for a thrilling ride, and at times a highly disturbing one, too.

Watching such sleek characters as Irons, Hiddleston and Sienna Miller, playing another resident, is a blast. Hiddleston especially, all blonde coolness and poise, looks like an angel dropped into the middle of an urban hell.

Where the picture comes down to Earth with a bump, however, is in its politics. It is content to go no further than saying it is not very healthy for a society to be so strictly divided between the haves and have nots, and that people are influenced by their surroundings. Fair enough, but the points are hammered home to numbing effect, so that by the time a Thatcher speech makes its entrance one feels as though one has spent the past couple of hours being smacked around the head with a fifth year Modern Studies essay. Ballard’s take on society, so radical in the mid-Seventies, has the whiff of history about it now, even though societal divisions are as deep as ever.

With nothing new to say, Wheatley should have let the drama do more of the talking, but his story, like the residents, only has a limited number of places to go. Even so, a visit to his crib is definitely one you will not forget.

Ben Wheatley speaks with Teddy Jamieson in tomorrow's Herald Arts