The tower blocks in High-Rise look like those at the Barbican: they’ve been built in formation by a ‘star’ architect and centre around a supermarket, school and swimming pool. The Barbican, bang in the City of London, is still regarded by some as ‘an expensive council estate’, while others view it as the ‘height’ of iconic designer living. Nowadays big corporates like Berkeley Homes employ a ‘place-maker’; someone whose sole job is to create the illusion of a desirable lifestyle out of the amenities on site: theatres, cinemas, shops… It’s seen as preferable to selling the idea that you’re living in a concrete box sandwiched between lots of other concrete boxes.
High-Rise has been translated to screen from J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel, published in 1975. Many have attempted a film adaptation, (including Nic Roeg – in the 70s), but it’s Ben Wheatley who has finally seen it through to completion. Tom Hiddleston stars as the very likeable Dr Robert Laing, who instantly questions the hierarchy that he encounters when he moves into the block.
The film is clearly set in a pre-digital age, but doesn’t latch onto any news events or locating ‘hooks’ to a specific time, so there’s no temporal political or social context, just a few ’70s-looking props like orange plastic sun loungers and shag-pile carpets. In one scene we hear a classical rendering of Abba’s ‘S.O.S’, (1975) although this is as much a dirty hint to the approaching breakdown as it is a soundtrack to the era. The film does have a retro elegance – similar to Mad Men; the shiny surfaces and contrasting raw concrete provide a 70s ‘filter’, oh and there’s also Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men’s Peggy Olsen) as Helen Wilder…
Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) is the block’s resident architect – a kind of God figure who dresses in white. He summons Laing, then insults him in various ways, not least by inviting him to a party in his penthouse where a chippy doorman throws him out and calls him cheap for bringing a bottle of Riesling – in so doing exposing Royal’s inflated arrogance that he would, one, tolerate that, but worse, not even feel the need to apologise. Laing is initially taken with Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), who is seemingly living ‘the dream’, but everything she says is laced with a hollow chill. She is confident and glamorous, a contrast, with dowdy, pregnant Helen, but ultimately they’re in the same boat, seduced by the notion that ‘rising higher’ in the building is the route to a better life. Laing sees the cracks in this ‘society’ right away and tries to mediate, until total anarchy breaks out and he decides that if you can’t beat them, well, you might as well fuck their wife and eat their dog.
Ballard used the building as a metaphor for the British class system, with the top floor being the aspirant pinnacle and the ground floor the impecunious pits, with all kinds of inequality leading to tension in-between. The novel focussed on what would happen if the hierarchy imploded and was replaced by a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality. The building’s Brutalist design finds echo’s in the violence that breaks out; while the characters names act as adjectives: Royal, the King at the top, Wilder the ‘middle’ guy who wants to smash the system and begins the riot. In general, the film’s narrative follows the book, although Wheatley definitely goes off piste on occasion – for example, the chaos is too prolonged and lacks structure within the story. Nonetheless, what is evident is how relevant Ballard’s themes still are. Forty years on we still have a class divide, and overpriced ‘high-rise’ ‘lifestyle’ housing is only forcing it wider.
Gemma de Cruz