Movin’ on up

A dystopian world of class warfare inside the High-Rise

Opens Friday, May 13. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss and Sienna Miller. Directed by Ben Wheatley. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

We see a slightly askew talking head filling the screen of a smallish and mostly askew TV set and asking, again and again, “What are you doing in there?” He tries to see what’s just outside the TV set, which is in a very disorderly room, and he doesn’t see the man in that room, who’s not really listening anyway, and maybe he’s looking for us, the audience watching High-Rise, the movie in which this moment is happening.

That’s one of the more memorable of the many off-handed oddball moments in Ben Wheatley’s suavely chaotic film version J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel of the same name. As such, it’s also one of the sidelong high points in a farcical satire that is more inventive in passing moments than in its overall narrative.

The central tale regards the lives of the residents of the eponymous skyscraper, an ostensibly futuristic structure in which the wealthiest and most privileged live in the splendor of the uppermost stories while those in abject poverty are relegated to the squalor of the lowest stories. The sardonic take on the British class system is obvious, but the main emphasis in this case is on the indifference of the privileged to the gross depredations and grotesqueries that occur at every level of “The Building.”

Wheatley tweaks the story here and there in order to link up with 21st century globalism and the income equality that goes with it. The film preserves a sense of something that might be happening in both “the future” and in 1975. But even with the excerpt of a Margaret Thatcher manifesto on the soundtrack, Wheatley’s High-Rise plays more as a comedy of decadence than as a barbed neo-Swiftian satire.

Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons have top billing, the former as a blandly respectable-looking physician who is also an upward-bound resident of the 25th floor and the latter as the flimsily messianic architect who designed The Building and presumes to be its ruler. The most interestingly conflicted character is one Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a former TV star who makes a series of self-defeating attempts at rebellion against the systematic injustices within The Building.

Elisabeth Moss is both angelic and feral as a knife-wielding woman who is also bulgingly pregnant. Reece Shearsmith has a couple of superbly farcical moments as a jut-jawed orthodontist named Steele.