Of all J.G. Ballard’s novels of the 1960s and 1970s – what might be termed his classic era – High- Rise, along with Concrete Island, was the most scrupulous and fastidious in its elaboration of a single space, using a high-end residental tower as an allegory for British class relations in the later twenty-first century. As Ballard was writing, high rise housing projects were a relatively new phenomenon, as was the accompanying brutalist styles that had started to spread to Britain by way of such as proponents as Alison and Peter Smithson, who were more or less responsible for the standard look of public housing precincts throughout the post-war period. While these high-rise developments may have been restricted largely to government housing, their rigid differentiation and segregation of working class spaces from the public sphere led Ballard to conceive of his own high rises as containing every social stratum, from the “architect” who inhabited the very top floor (played here by Jeremy Irons) to the more plebeian and proletarian inhabitants who clustered closer to ground level. Into that mixture comes doctor and medical lecturer Ben Laing (played here by Tom Hiddleston), who as an upwardly mobile professional finds himself caught halfway between the middle-class aspirations of the lower floors and the aristocratic pretensions of the upper floors. Whereas Ballard’s novels often feature an ingenue attaching a certain allure to a figure of dubious and seductive authority, here Laing is encountered by a plethora of such figures, all stemming from a different point within the high-rise structure and all with their own agenda to sell, although in many ways it is the architect whose voice tends to predominate, if only because he is so identified with the building itself.
As Ballard puts it, then, the high-rise is not merely a physical space but “the unconscious diagram of some psychic event,” making it a peculiarly difficult phenomenon to transplant to the big screen, not least because of the forty odd years that have elapsed since High-Rise was first published. While the novel reads in many ways as science fiction – or the revelation of urban realism as science fiction that Ballard did so well – most of its predictions have come to pass, not just in Britain but in the United States, where they have been so extensively documented and aestheticised that it would seem more surprising now to conceive of a housing project that didn’t recapitulate the very class conditions that had sequestered and oppressed it in the first place. At the same time, however, there is an urgency to the very comprehensiveness of Ballard’s vision – it is his most consciously and systematically “allegorical” novel – that has only intensified in the wake of these failed housing experiments, and it is that continuing urgency that is in some sense the focus of Wheatley’s adaptation. As a result, High-Rise doesn’t exactly play out in a historicised past, but nor does it feel like a contemporary transplantation either. Instead, the 70s and the present are collapsed into something like a generic “period style” that ostensibly correlates to Ballard’s own period but instead feels more like an intensification of the highly material and plastic forms of periodicity that have become so prominent in the wake of quality television, with Elisabeth Moss’ presence seeming to identify Wheatley’s mise-en-scenes as a distant descendant of Mad Men in particular. Here, as there, we are not ultimately inhabiting a specific period – neither Ballard’s nor our own – so much as a certain conception of “periodicity” that tends to favour the most flamboyant anticipations of a future that never came to pass, not least because the most privileged members of the high-rise tend to parade their power through a pompous pastiche and panorama of cultural capital drawn from every conceivable period and context, most spectacularly in an extended party sequence set to an aggressively neoclassical version of ABBA’s “S.O.S.”
As might be expected, that kitchen-sink futurism makes for a highly stylised film, with Wheatley’s claustrophobic mise-en-scenes – we never leave the high-rise – often playing as a late fusion of Terry Gilliam and Peter Greenaway as well as leaving space for Ballard’s own highly stylised dialogue to play a fairly central role, not just in direct quotations but in the style and tenor of Amy Jump’s screenplay. As so often occurs, that self-conscious stylisation manifests itself first and foremost as photographic poise, with the first third, in particular, almost playing out as a montage of still images, in which the camera barely moves except to zoom in on tableaux vivants that recapitulate the hyper-masculinity and phallic vigilance of the brutalist structure as a whole. For a short period that creates a constrained and confined sense of space, but it quickly does away with any coherent sense of space altogether, as well as precluding any total cognitive or conceptual map of the building. As a result, there is almost no interest in perception, cognition or even introspection, with the characters largely playing as a series of types, usually reduced to one psychological quirk which is then immediately embodied in flamboyant physiological symptoms. It feels right, then, that Laing is a specialist in the nexus between physiology and psychopathology – in an opening scene, he brutally, viscerally and plosively destroys the preserved head of a sociopath for a collection of medical students, in what comes to feel like the prototype for his rampages in the later part of the film.
While that plastic quality certainly makes the film more engaging, it also allows Wheatley to remain true to Ballard’s allegorical intentions in quite a striking and original way. Although it might sound somewhat paradoxical, allegory has become quite a radical stance these days, at least in arthouse cinema, where indirection, subtlety and “nuance” tends to be the preferred style. At the same time, however, allegory has been utterly co-opted by the universe-building tendencies of mainstream cinema, especially the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which thrives on allegorising everything conceivable about the present and then collapsing it into an allegory for its own ever-evolving franchise power. Caught between an arthouse culture that is suspicious of allegory and a mainstream culture that has utterly internalised allegory, there is something experimental about a film like High-Rise that aims to reinvest allegory with a radical potential, even if allegory itself can often be one of the most staid and old-fashioned forms (hence its amenability to the Marvel empire). For that reason, there is something particularly striking about the way in which Wheatley adopts Ballard’s allegory as an allegory – and a Marxist allegory at that – particularly in the way in which he frames class relations as something that will inevitably, internally dissolve when taken to their logical conclusion. From the very outset of the film, and even in the static photographic compositions of the first act, there is a certain hallucinatory atmosphere as well as a certain decentred, asymmetrical, off-kilter quality to all the characters that never quite allows it to gel into anything as staid, structured or stable as an ensemble drama. As a result, there is no single moment of disintegration within the tower block, but rather a whole lot of things sliding downwards from the very outset, an accumulating entropy that feels utterly organic and dynamic despite being framed in a highly artificial and “stylised” cinematic manner Part of what makes High-Rise so compelling, then, is the way in which – like Ballard – it conceives of allegory as a dynamic vehicle, to the point where it often feels as if what we are watching is the very process of allegorical representation transcending and subsuming itself into dialectic embodiment, collapsing whatever minuscule distance still remains between past and present into a scenario that feels as if it is unfolding in real time.
While those tendencies pervade every scene, they are clearest and most spectacular in the way in which Wheatley manages to capture the unconscious, disorganised and contingent formation of a crowd. One of the big challenges of transplanting Ballard’s novels to the screen is drawing a common denominator between his clear Marxist and psychoanalytic sympathies without ever seeming too discursive or expository, and Wheatley achieves this perfectly in the way in which the mob’s desires and affiliations emerge from the superstructure of the tower. From the very beginning, every collection of people – no matter how minor or incidental – has an incendiary potential that gradually coalesces around a nascent mob – part fight, part orgy, part children’s birthday party – that in turn transforms the film into a single extended montage sequence as it proceeds. While the opening act also played in some sense as a montage sequence, albeit a sequence of still photographs, a more fluid and creative sense of montage emerges, in a kind of libidinal economy of revolution, a testament to the unleashing of promiscuous potentiality and energy that occurs as one system dissolves and another becomes available. As the narrative becomes more and more inconsequential, the ebb and flow of that collective energy – so fleeting yet so precious – drives the last act of the film, dynamising the supposedly old-fashioned vehicle of montage in much the same way that Wheatley dynamises the supposedly old-fashioned stance of allegory, creating an intensely kaleidoscopic and picaresque atmosphere that sees people of all states and social stations wandering in a single amorphous space that always seems on the verge of ballooning out to encompass the entire apartment complex.
At the same time, however, the rich respond with their own Bacchanalian revelries on the top floor, which at first seems like an act of oblivion, but quickly comes to feel like a strategy for harnessing and incorporating all that promiscuous energy and containing it as mere postmodern play – a critical process in what the architect describes as “Balkanising and colonising” the building again. While the party mood that pervades the film has a certain revolutionary potential, then, it is also precisely what makes this revolutionary impulse so vulnerable to being co-opted and contained, with the architect recognising that the best way to deal with the insurgents is simply to invite them to join his own party. As agency and accountability becomes more and more dispersed and the crowd behaves with more and more infantile abandon, it becomes easier and easier for the rich to step in and frame it all as a “huge children’s party that had got out of hand.” Ironically, this process is only completed after the architect has been killed in the fracas, but at the same time that makes for an even greater testament to his vision of the high-rise as a self-regulating and self-correcting class structure, more than capable of sustaining itself in his absence. If anything, he feels even more present once he has been shot and fully absorbed in the building, thanks in part to an elusive, drifting performance from Irons that never feels fully present or embodied in the first place.
Speaking of Irons, the one issue I had with the film was the relationship between Laing and the architect, which forms such a key – if often unspoken – point of reference in the novel. While Ballard’s prose style and characters are often deliberately affectless and flat, he compensates with an extraordinary capacity to evoke allure as a kind of post-affective state – especially the allure that younger ingenues often feel for a father-figure or teacher-figure. Admittedly, in High-Rise, this shadowy yet compelling source of knowledge – what might be described as a subject supposed to know – is distributed across a couple of characters, but there is nevertheless a particular and pregnant allure that settles around the architect that wasn’t fully captured here. If anything, it is the space at the top of the high rise that forms the main source of allure, largely because this is only place in the complex that we get any sustained sense of space, from the endlessly recursive mirrors in the elevator on the way up, to the sweeping vistas of the lawn and garden on the top, to the epic aerial shots that are used to anchor the rooftop garden within the high rise complex as a whole – the only moments in the film where Wheatley’s establishing shots don’t come off as pointedly digital and artificial. Nevertheless, the actual relationship between Laing and Irons is largely shorn of allure, partly because so much of the film’s allure fixates on Hiddlesworth and his physical appearance, whose blandly aristocratic GQ bearing works perfectly alongside the upward mobility and professionalism of the tower as a whole, but tends to prevent it feeling as if he is ever really communing with Irons, whose ability to simultaneously generate and parody actorly allure feels somewhat put to waste here. In that sense, the film feels somewhat decentred affectively, or devoid of the wonder that is such a hallmark of Ballard’s style – flatness and wonder side by side – although this is arguably part of Wheatley’s revisionist gesture and adaptation as well. In any case, it’s a small gripe with a film that dares to bring such an iconic novel to the screen at such a late date, as well as a film that is true to Ballard in so many other ways as well, reminding me of just how difficult – and just how rare – it is to see his prose style successfully translated into cinematic language.