18 March 2016

High-Rise: the teething problems of capitalism or the dystopian future?


Ben Wheatley and his wife Amy Jump have adapted J.G.Ballard’s prophesy of affluenza and anger into film, seven years after Ballard’s death. The maverick British film director and script writer have incorporated the ridiculous cars, lapels and shagpile sideburns of the 70s in the re-working of his dystopian futuristic social commentary, High Rise.

Tom Hiddleston, one of Britain’s great ten-year-over-night-success-stories, plays the protagonist, Dr. Robert Laing. He lives on the 25th floor of a 40 floor tower block built for those already of comfortable means in an unspecified but recognisably British city. Although all residents pay the same rents, the building is divided by a rigid social hierarchy, so the most well-off live near the top, the least well-off near the base of the building. The film has been critiqued for not making this class delineation as clear as it is in Ballard’s book: Ballard spends a good deal of his book detailing how the massive tower block’s caste system works, explaining the way amenities (including the nearest parking spaces and fastest elevators) are unfairly allocated to serve the most wealthy upper(-class) floors, sowing discontent among the poorer, debt-laden residents forced to do without electricity when supply is short. This criticism is fairly surprising though as it is long known the advantage visual imagery has over words in conveying an idea or emotion quickly. Besides, the class construct is explicitly referred to by Sienna Miller’s character, with several other easy-to-spot clues peppering the script. In Laing’s first venture to a party on the floors above him he is mocked for wearing a suit, not full period costume, and called a ‘cheap b*****d’.

It is understandable American viewers have struggled. Hiddleston plays a well-respected, high-ranking doctor, is well-spoken and good at sports. He is not exactly the ‘average guy’. But nor is he supposed to be. His placement in the middle of the block and the middle of the story is unconventional. If it’s a story about class, why are we focused on the middle? The boring bit? He has no obvious vices, struggles, passions or influence. In fact, we never see any of Laing’s possessions, and he oscillates between being in a suit and tie to completely naked. Nothing inbetween. There is very little to give away his character visibly.

“Perhaps the British have a more finely attuned internal barometer for reading class, picking up on subtle cues like wardrobe and accent to peg where any given individual falls in the great social hierarchy” suggests one critic. This is probably true. And the film is set in the ‘70s when class perhaps still had a place in the British psyche. But do viewers seeing the film now have that internal barometer? We have done much to hide it even if it is there. Even politicians, perhaps the people most able to understand the concept from their birds-eye view of society, or have need of using it, don’t use the word ‘class’ anymore.

I think the point Wheatley is making is far more powerful. That even without these visual and audible prompts, the tower block represents a logical, intuitively comprehensible system. And when physical things break down, social structures breakdown. We’re all the same underneath the veneer.

The film starts at the end, with Hiddleston’s character Laing alone at the top of the tower block. It sets the tone of the film with an unnerving calm to the dangerous, immoral and bizarre. For example, Laing is both the narrator and the protagonist, and so refers to himself in the third person whilst going through the scene. A flashback takes us to the start of Laing’s story in the tower block, on his arrival in a newly rented apartment, and viewers are indulged with almost 45 minutes of straight forward linear plot progression before chaos dawns. That said, it is impossible to pin point the moment the High-Rise supposedly ‘turns’ – the party scenes of the affluent (upper floors) before the power goes out have striking resemblance of the maniacal, carnal scenes that unfold afterwards. Given his track record for almost an ‘allergic reaction to the conventional’, one suspects this is a deliberate blurring of lines by Wheatley.

Luke Evans plays Richard Wilder, a lower floor resident who – in the book – starts an ascent that makes for a take on an uprising. He’s violent, self-indulgent and repellent, but he’s aspirational and self-aware, and this gives a sense of order to the chaos.

In fact, the scenes between him and co-star Sienna Miller were the most convincing of the entire film, with recognizable human emotions and the most believable power relationship shown in the film. Even with a disturbing, slowed-down synth cover of ABBA’s “SOS” layered over the top, Miller keeps the entire film grounded in the one scene where her character, Charlotte, allows herself to show her true feelings.

The music plays a central role in the film. The description of Clint Mansell’s score as “lofty pseudo-classical” just about hits the spot, but misses the pace and tone which is of one normally found in a children’s magical film. This parallel is made by the frequent jump cuts back to a child’s birthday party scene which gets progressively out of control, a metaphor for the entire plot. The psychedelic music, splicing recognisable tunes (several from the 70s) with a kalaidescope of human noises allows Wheatley the flexibility of genre to venture into the surreal, and gives the audience a way to follow him.

It also allows for brief moments of comic relief. Jeremy Irons, playing the cool architect who lives in the Penthouse of the High Rise – the host of the nightmarish party – beautifully delivers his one-liners, saving Laing from certain death with “you can’t just put him over the edge! He owes me a game of squash”. Amy Jump’s script borders on the absurd but is just held back by moments of realism, a personal favourite being the reaction of Irons’ aide when he is sent to kill a horse for dinner, armed only with a cheese knife.

The main downside of the film is you end up disliking most characters, especially Hiddleston’s who slides all over the place morally. He has been praised for “surfing through the confusion with ease” but his tendency to look detached from the chaos is neither unnerving nor philosophical and lands somewhere in the zone of selfishness. There is also ever slightly too much gratuitous gore, which is the result of a budget so restrictive it prevented Wheatley from orchestrating any real combat scenes between floors.

The economic or philosophical lessons of the film dotted about, there for viewers to take if they want them, are nicely handled until the final shot of the drama. Ballard’s book was published in the year Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party, before the Winter of Discontent saw rubbish rotting on British streets amid industrial disputes. Perhaps as a tongue-in-cheek warning, Wheatley chooses to end by playing a recording of Margaret Thatcher stating that capitalism is the only option, and “where there is state capitalism, there will never be political freedom”.

Whatever he was aiming for, this British rebel has brought to life the diagram of some kind of psychic event, 40 years in the making. Although there are several unhappy bunnies hopping around it, this is an important film to see.

Olivia Archdeacon is the Assistant Editor of CapX