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Much of author JG Ballard’s work tends to be described as conjuring up cold, slightly strange worlds that look familiar but are far more brutal and perverted than the worlds they are derived from. It could be argued they are less ‘worlds’, than visions born of an imagination that has grown bored with – if not disgusted by – the stifling routines and rituals of suburban life in the South East of England.

Intriuiging enough premise…

JG Ballard

JG Ballard

The feature film High Rise is based on Ballard’s 1975 novel and asks us to accept a vast modernist skyscraper containing a 1,000 apartments as an analogy of modern society, or more accurately a concrete embodiment of how deluded we are for entertaining the idea that the divided classes might ever live happily together.

The tower pretends to offer a sort of microcosmic universe the equivalent of a giant spaceship in search of new galaxies.  Captain of this static spaceship is the architect, Mr Royal (Jeremy Irons), who like the architect who designed the famous Balfron Tower in East London, lives in the top floor apartment, or penthouse. Unlike the Balfron Tower’s architect, Royal’s world boasts beautiful gardens like a cross between an Alice in Wonderland world and the gardens of Hampton Court. Royal himself seems dissatisfied with his creation and appears to be working on an updated prototype that will, presumably, take into account the failings of version one of his high rise.

The apartments have been awarded according to rank, with the public school types getting the top floors and the working classes the lower floors. However, everyone has access to the tower’s gym, swimming pool and, less surprisingly, the supermarket. Nice idea, you think at first, warming to some sort of allegorical model, till you realize that this makes absolutely no sense in real life: ask any tenant who lives in a high rise and he or she will groan about life on the top floors; everyone wants to live closer to the ground floor. What’s more, far from being inspirational and even remotely ethereal, the upper floors of any tower block I’ve ever visited feel isolated and alienating; they are harder to access (think of those days the lifts don’t work and you live on floor 24!) and are buffeted by howling winds.

highrise_Hiddleston paintsTwo thirds of the way up the titular high rise, our lead protagonist, Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) lives in a minimalist concrete den with few trappings of any kind. He is a brain surgeon, (stereotypically) reticent and remote, equipped with polite smiles and highly polished deflective responses that feign interest and a minimalistic sort of indifference in equal measure. In real life, of course, you would never find an inscrutable man like this in a place like this; even accounting for the fact that he has somehow rejected his ‘class’ and is seeking some alternative life style, this place wouldn’t be a place he’d withdraw to, not in the real world at any rate.

We might be more prepared to play along if the writer – or scriptwriter – Amy Jump (Jump writing a piece called High Rise? oh, never mind) took the trouble to provide us with some hint as to why Laing is the way he is, or even give us a clue as to what he wants.  Rule number 1 in scriptwriting: the protagonist should want something and that something should be tangible and specific; it’s difficult to sustain any real interest in a hero who is merely a laconic voyeur. He bumps into equally shallow characters who, in contrast to himself, lust after sex and meaningless violence. Most of the adults in this film behave like disgruntled or confused hangers-on at a party they gate crashed, and all seem to be waiting for some kind of explosion to deliver them to an alternative world.

Characters without depth

Not only does Laing lack anything remotely like a character – he’s really just a type, and a thin one at that – all the other people in the building are types: the drunken toff (James Purefoy), Wilder (Luke Evans) the brutish working class philanderer and filmmaker listlessly searching for an elusive truth about the building’s purpose (and raping women while he’s at it), Royal’s spaced out wife (Keeley Hawes) and hangers-on; the single mum (Sienna Miller) who is torn between looking after her geeky son and finding a man to replace Royal, the man who dumped her for younger totty. Not one of them has a discernible backstory beyond that which a type might have, nor a plot or subplot that leads to any kind of remotely interesting denouement.

The point here seems to be social ennui and the grotesque stupidity of human vanity – let’s see how low people of all classes will stoop when social experiments pretend that we can all live happily together – and seems to find its earliest embodiment in the film with a completely pointless party scene with tenants dressed up as French aristocrats – as if they could afford the costumes!

HighRise_anarchist_Evans

Luke Evans plays an angry anarchist and misogynist intent on rock ‘n roll destruction

To hell with plot

As for a plot, there’s not much sign of one outside of the laborious imploding of the social fabric of the high rise. For at least thirty minutes we get a mid section of one example after the next of people losing it. A pornography of growing dysfunction. Scenes of falling out are really no more interesting than watching a bunch of teenagers running a farting competition – and probably much less amusing.

I can’t help feeling Ballard isn’t any more interested in plot than character – to take on plot and, therefore, structure would work against his central theme, which is to show us the social fabric is but a thin veneer and ugliness and anarchy lie just beneath. Ballard’s point here, surely, is to show, in a vaguely surrealistic fashion, that all social experiments only turn us into a bunch of vacuous phonies, largely because we are so driven by base needs, (if only we’d be honest enough to admit it.)

This is Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange meets post 1984 but without any real teeth. As with A Clockwork Orange a similar kind of sadism and misogyny prevails but it is far less compelling because it lacks any real urgency or street authenticity. The author is playing with the same premise: that us uptight Brits, with our vulgar lower classes and our prissy middle classes and fascist upper classes, all share one thing in common: we secretly lust for a breakdown in social order – we are, at heart, anarchists.

High-Rise_Jeremy Irons

Oh dear, it’s all going terribly wrong for Jeremy Irons’ High Rise project

This kind of attitude may have struck more of a chord in the mid seventies, during the 3-day week, but feels dated now. Today most of us haven’t much patience for the kind of art that merely rubs our nose in sloppy directionless anarchy and its one note tune. At least the so-called anarchy of punk bands emerging at the time of the publication of this novel wanted to shake things up and set people free – this kind of lawlessness only feeds an appetite for more gestures of self-disgust.

To my mind High Rise is victim of the Brit’s innate tendency to indulge in theatre and style for the sake of it. With its polished sets, beautiful photography, its striking colour grade, hair and make up and an embarrassment of costumes that insist you sigh nostalgically for the seventies, we are really in the world of advertising – we’re being sold a look, a cool Britannia, skirting a story with any resonance to it.

 

Tom Hiddleston_High Rise

Cue the slow motion as Laing, the brain surgeon, finds himself in a Virgin Airlines recruitment ad

This is world in which every bit of detail is a clever reference to ‘the big idea’.  The problem is that without people you care about, it’s all a lot of vainglorious posturing. The ‘big idea’ here is far thinner than it pretends to be and devours everyday suburban paranoia only to cough up an empty melodrama. This massive dichotomy between visual panache and talent and writing intelligence is an abyss of pretentiousness into which we find ourselves being sucked into. About half way in, you may start to resent the cloying energy of the experience. I wasn’t surprised to see several people leave the cinema long before the end credits.

Worryingly, you can’t help feeling that the director, Ben Wheatley (Sightseers, Kill List) takes Ballard’s view seriously; he seems to share entirely Ballard’s vision of people quickly turning into murderous, adulterous morons the second we have a power failure. Oh, yes, this is exactly what would happen, he seems to be saying with ghoulish relish. Really? A power failure? I’ve lived through the blackouts in the seventies and there were no riots, on the contrary, the country had never seemed more quiet and stay-at-home sober. And perhaps a minor detail here: but if you’re going to show people getting up to all night parties and orgies, at least remember there would be no stereo blasting out music if there was a power cut.

Royal’s building is both glossy and grubby and, once the tenants start trashing everything, it all begins to look like a bunch of extras trashing a film set. What you get is flashy rock ‘n roll, an empty, even passé sort of brutalism; the action lacks dramatic tension and feels overly choreographed; disembodied from any meaningful statement.

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