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In ‘High-Rise,’ class conflict on every level

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Elisabeth Moss and Tom Hiddleston in “High-Rise.”Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

"Some days," Dr. John Laing (Tom Hiddleston) says about himself in voice-over at the beginning of "High-Rise," "he found it hard to believe he was not in a future that had already happened."

And indeed it has happened already, in films like "Metropolis" (1927), "The Time Machine" (1960), "Lord of the Flies" (1963), and Luis Buñuel's 1962 masterpiece "The Exterminating Angel" (which doesn't take place in the future, but in an alternate "Buñuel time"). In each of these films an isolated setting — a city, an island, a seeming Elysium, a mansion — serves as a microcosm to demonstrate the dynamics of class conflict.

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How does "High-Rise" director Ben Wheatley's brisk, black comic adaptation of J.G. Ballard's 1975 novel differ from the above? For one, he and screenwriter Amy Jump elevate the claw-shaped, brutalist tower of the title into a character in its own right.

The lower floors, shot in muddy colors and with claustrophobic compositions, harbor low-level professionals like Wilder (Luke Evans, who resembles Alan Bates in Ken Russell's "The Devils"), a sometime documentarian.

The intermediate section, in shades of gray, houses middling figures like Laing (perhaps named after the 1960s psychiatrist R.D. Laing, author of "The Myth of Mental Illness"), who teaches neurology at a medical school.

And the top level is a multicolored penthouse garden where Royal (Jeremy Irons) throws Versailles-style parties and his trophy wife (Keeley Hawes) rides around on a white horse.

Après moi, le déluge.

It only takes three months of blackouts and balky elevators to send the tenants into an id-addled downward — and sometimes upward — spiral. Wheatley renders this breakdown of civilization in jaunty montages of assaults, orgies, murders, and mounds of garbage, images backed by music ranging from Portishead to Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.

Plausible? Irons's exquisite readings of lines like "Bit of a mess — but nothing that can't be swept under the rug," said in answer to a police inquiry into the chaos, help with the willing suspension of disbelief.

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Meaningful? Perhaps. But because it stoops to obvious editorializing (a voice-over of Margaret Thatcher on capitalism?), it never quite rises to the top.


HIGH-RISE

Directed by Ben Wheatley. Written by Amy Jump based on the novel by J.G. Ballard. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans. At Kendall Square. 119 minutes. R (violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content/graphic nudity, language, and some drug use).