Just recently, I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and J. G. Ballard’s Super-Cannes back to back, partly in an attempt to understand why both writers seem to be constantly rediscovered and valourised by subsequent generations. I first read Ballard in my early 20s and I remember being fascinated and spooked by the clinical dystopian excesses of his phantasms. Reading him alongside Rand, I was now struck by their shared paranoia, an adolescent rendering of a world that sees malevolence in every weakness and bad faith in every compromise. Rand’s misunderstood lone geniuses are lionised by the libertarian right, and Ballard’s anti-humanist scenarios feed into contemporary left-wing pessimism and rage, but both writers tap into the fears and isolation that often scar contemporary teenage life. Their characters exist and function as caricatures. They might build the world’s most imperious buildings or partake in drug-fuelled emotionless orgies but they never really leave their bedrooms and their single beds.
Both writers share another trait, in that their prose is often perfunctory and without any musicality. Style and language is always sacrificed to the concept or to the idea, and after a while reading them becomes exhausting: little they create gets under our skin.
Ben Wheatley, from his first feature film, the superlative Down Terrace, does get under our skin. In that film, and subsequently in films such as Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England, he has boldly desecrated the social-realist tropes that have dominated the representation of class in British cinema. And so I was excited when I heard he was going to adapt Ballard’s 1975 novel, High-Rise, for the screen. The novel is a one-trick pony, an allegory of class set in a futuristic multilevel apartment tower. As the amenities of the high-rise begin to falter and break down, an increasingly savage conflict between the ruling elite on the top floors and the aspirational middle class on the lower levels begins to unfold. The carnage keeps building but, because the characters are never anything more than stick figures, the escalating violence has no resonance and, though only a slim volume, the book becomes wearisome very quickly.
My hope was that Wheatley, who in his previous films has unleashed the queasy menace and sadistic exhilaration that underlies class war and class hatred, might have made the story his own, using the undernourished premise as a jumping off point to explore the ever morphing absurdities of the British class system that has survived Thatcherism, Blairism and now Brexit. He is capable of giving the story an operatic grandeur, but his film is, if anything, far too literal an adaptation of the novel. We are stuck in 1975, not as history or as a re-reading of the past, but purely as an aesthetic.
The film begins with a flash-forward that is disorienting and clumsily edited. But once the narrative proper commences, and we are introduced to Dr Robert Laing, played by Tom Hiddleston, a new resident of the luxury high-rise, it holds our fascination. Undoubtedly, much of this is because of the work of the art directors, Nigel Pollock and Frank Walsh, the cinematography of Laurie Rose, and Mark Tildesley’s production design. The tower itself is an almost protean character in its own right, a Soviet Brutalist ziggurat, its corridors, its balconies and its walls seemingly pulsating with organic and malicious power. The fashions and the characters are archetypes of the Cold War mid-’70s, but there are occasional references to our current century that are unsettling and confusing. Initially, I trusted these inconsistencies, expecting that the film was intending to interrogate the present as much as it would the past, but it was not long before that initial trust was betrayed.
Laing is introduced to Mr Royal, the architect of the tower, whose penthouse suite is a pastoral Eden that sits atop the cruel monolith. The introduction to Royal, played by Jeremy Irons as if he were auditioning for a role as a villain in the next Bond film, seems a clumsy plot contrivance, so that we can have Laing made aware of the aristocratic world at the top. It is at this point that the film begins to lose coherence, with the foppish upper class presented as buffoons, zealously guarding their privilege. I am not suggesting that such a motivation isn’t true to class and wealth, but it is lazily developed and indicative of the adolescent conception that also marred the impact of the original novel.
From here, Wheatley loses grasp of his material and the film resorts to kinetic editing and ellipses of time to propel the narrative. We see people acting desperately and we witness moments of brutality and violence, but we get no sense of the repressed hunger or the lust or the wrath that are at the roots of the ensuing bloodbath.
Wheatley’s talent shines through intermittently. There is an orgy scene that is both dissolute and powerfully erotic, and there are flashes of cruel wit and absurdity, but they, too, seem unrelated to the story unfolding. In the second half, Hiddleston disappears as a performer, the actor aimlessly wandering the collapsing apartment block, clearly without a clue as to what is wanted from him. There are fine performances in High-Rise, from Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss in particular, but they are compromised by the frenetic but seemingly arbitrary editing so that any opportunity to build character or, more importantly, to convey meaning is destroyed.
An argument could be mounted that the intention of Wheatley and his scriptwriter, Amy Jump, was consciously Brechtian: that the one-dimensional performances are to lay bare the still wretched hold of class in Britain. But for all its stylistic verve and at times potent visual beauty, High-Rise seems terribly dated, including in its appropriation of a once radical aesthetic of alienation. The film concludes with a voiceover from Margaret Thatcher, but we are not convinced that the film earns such an abrupt intrusion of history and the real. Thatcher ends up being bracketed within the faux-’70s of the film, the still continuing effects of her ideology not impinging in our consciousness as an audience in the contemporary world.
High-Rise is a very white film, by which I mean that there are almost no people of colour in the apartment block, on any of the levels. It may be that the filmmakers wanted to reflect the racist underpinnings of the British aristocracy and bourgeoisie but again this means that any urgency to the film is diminished. It also underlies the film’s timidity as both adaptation and as an examination of how class now works. The television series, Life on Mars, had a white detective from the present return to the England of the 1970s and through his interaction with our near past it explored the lacerating effects of racism and misogyny on working-class culture. It also had the courage to express something of the longing for that past that still is at play in our politics today. High-Rise, chained to the simplistic dichotomies of the novel, could have used some of that kind of daring.
I know I am being harsh, but it is because I value Wheatley highly as a director. To that end, I’d urge people to find his A Field in England, a film that, although set in the 17th century and the English Civil War, is fiercely relevant to the England of the present day. This film is not that.
There is a point in High-Rise when Abba’s classic song “SOS” is sung with mournful intensity by the English band Portishead. I think it will be the one moment that will stay with me from the film. It is a homage to our shared pop history, but one sung by grown-ups, who know that a return to that past is no longer possible. I would guess that for most of us, the sureties and strident convictions of adolescence are also to be mourned. But we recognise we can’t return there. One can only dream of what High-Rise could have been if the filmmakers had the courage of that conviction.