Ballardian /ˌbæladiən/ adjective

  1. of James Graham Ballard (1930–2009), the British novelist, or his works

 

  1. resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, esp dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.

 

First broadcast on The Frost Report in 1966, there may never have been a more ingenious, satirical skewering of the English class system than the classic Marty Feldman and John Law-penned Class Sketch.

Featuring John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett as visual avatars of each social class – the tall, patrician Cleese in bowler hat and pinstripes is the embodiment of the ruling, upper class, the trilby-sporting, average-height Barker the middle class and the diminutive Corbett in flat cap is the working class, the oft-repeated “I know my place,” his response as the other two compare and contrast the socio-economic advantages and disadvantages of each strata of the system.

Adapting JG Ballard’s 1975 novel for the screen, Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise feels like a two-hour sequel to the Class Sketch, a dire warning of what happens when the riff-raff stop knowing their place. With added animal cruelty and, largely off-screen, rape and murder.

Seeking anonymity and a fresh start, smooth, debonair surgeon Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is the newest resident of the titular high-rise; a brutalist apartment block in the middle of nowhere that offers sanctuary to those seeking refuge from the city.

Envisaged as a “crucible for change” by the Architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), a place where the classes can meet and mix, the building is a self-contained universe with its own supermarket, gym and swimming pool, where all needs are catered for and life is one long, hedonistic party. It isn’t long before Laing attracts the attention of the seductive Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), a single mother and party-girl in the apartment above his, who introduces him to his fellow residents, among them Bolshy, pugnacious documentarian Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his brow-beaten, pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss).

But as power cuts, flickering lights and malfunctioning lifts afflict the building, it becomes clear that Royal’s grand experiment is failing and that the high-rise, far from being the crucible of change, is a microcosm for society, your social class defining where in the building you live (rich at the top, poor at the bottom), reflecting and magnifying the rigid divisions in society. As tensions mount sparking sporadic violence, Laing coolly observes as his fellow residents descend into madness and savagery, open class war erupting, engulfing the high-rise.

 

“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.” – High Rise, JG Ballard

 

It’s one of the most striking openings in 20th century literature, right up there with the clock striking 13 in George Orwell’s 1984. A shocking, matter-of-fact moment of banal horror that neatly encapsulates the book’s callous dog-eat-dog, or in this case doctor-eats-dog, themes of alienation, violence and savagery. And Wheatley plays it for laughs! Rendering the unpalatable palatable and displaying, practically from the first frames of the film, that he and screenwriter Amy Jump inherently have little real affinity or understanding of the material, Wheatley takes the novel Ballard himself considered an act of terrorism, an orgy of taboo-busting sex, violence, rape, murder, incest and cannibalism, that had long been touted as unfilmable, and delivers a 15-certificate petit bourgeois exercise in 70s retro-futurist nostalgia that’s like being stuck at a party next to the beardy-weirdy who tries to find common ground with you by reminiscing about Spangles, when Snickers was Marathon and how you never see white dog turds anymore like you did in the 70s.

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Laurie Rose in what appears to be a provincial new town’s brutalist leisure centre, High-Rise is as pretty and empty as it’s protagonist, the passive Laing, a voyeur content to watch the world around him destroy itself, adapting to the ruins left behind and Hiddleston is wonderful in the role, a louche, almost Saurian presence, the quintessentially Ballardian protagonist. The same cannot be said of the rest of the hugely-talented and ultimately squandered cast who are as tonally all over the place as the rest of the film. As the building’s raging id, Luke Evans is practically a panto villain, hoovering drugs, drowning dogs and raping women with the glee of an ex-rugger player gone to seed while James Purefoy as one of the leading toffs chews the scenery so hard you’re surprised he has any teeth left. Reece Shearsmith keeps popping in from an episode of The League of Gentleman, Elisabeth Moss’ quite subtle performance as the closest thing to a likable character in the movie is eclipsed by the ludicrously huge fake pregnant belly she’s been saddled with and the rest of the film’s women (Siennas Miller & Guillory and Keeley Hawes) are underwritten ciphers though Nymphomaniac’s Stacy Martin impresses as a supermarket check-out girl-turned-revolutionary in one of the film’s more throwaway jokes.

Choosing to set the film in the era it was written, rather than updating it to the present further serves to distance and alienate the audience from the material and feels like an exercise in hipster chic, allowing Wheatley and his design team to wallow in the kitsch décor and fashions of the 70s without ever really engaging with material itself, as if Nic Roeg decided to slum it and direct Abigail’s Party for the Beeb. With it’s themes of sex, violence, voyeurism and technology, few novels are riper for an updating to the era of mass Big Brother surveillance, selfies, internet superstars, happy slapping and reality television than High-Rise but Wheatley keeps us safely in the 70s and indeed gets his biggest laugh by stealing a scene from the opening credits of Quincey M.E.

And there lies High-Rise’s greatest failing; it’s safe. And Ballard’s novel is anything but safe. Having arguably spent the happiest years of his life scavenging for survival in a Japanese prison camp, Ballard was no stranger to the baser instincts we all hide from polite society, knowing that it takes merely the right circumstances and the right stimuli to release the beast in all of us. That there is a freedom, a wild joy, in savagery, in regressing, in immersing ourselves in hedonistic sex and violence, of surrendering to a greater logic, to chaos. In High-Rise, all it takes is a power cut and the fruit rotting in the supermarket for society to fall. Yet Wheatley shies away from this concept, refusing to show how exciting, how seductive self-destruction can be. He shears the book of it’s taboos (Laing’s incest with his sister, the implied cannibalism) and stages much of the violence, and in particular the film’s pivotal rape scene, offscreen, behind closed doors. Like Laing, we are content to watch passively, with detached interest, as events unfold, unwilling to commit ourselves.

Pretty but vacant, High-Rise is as bland a film about sex, violence, hedonism, class warfare, animal cruelty and the eventual triumph of the matriarchy over the patriarchy as you’re liable to see.

Movie Review: High Rise
3.0Overall Score
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