is often destiny. Take for instance Ralph Rapson’s explicitly utopian project,
Cedar Square West (now called Riverside Plaza) in Minneapolis. It was conceived
to house city residents across the entire economic spectrum (Mary Richards
moved on up to the building in the final two seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show), but as CSW developed maintenance
problems, it became exclusively low income housing, marked by decidedly
short-term residencies (suggesting people move out as soon as they can afford
to). The imposing complex designed by Anthony Royal is sort of the British
retro-Brutalist leftist dystopian version of Cedar Square West. Despite its
initial prestige, Royal’s building is even less livable for tenants in Ben
Wheatley’s J.G. Ballard adaptation, High-Rise
screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
As he looks
back on his relatively short time as a High-Rise resident, Dr. Robert Laing
grills up a leg of one of the last formerly surviving pet canines, so we know
he is a survivor. Moving into the building is quite a coup at the time. The
fact that the terrace of attractive single mother Charlotte Melville overlooks
his own is a nice bonus. He quickly recognizes her status as the alpha queen of
the middle floors’ social scene.
Laing is summoned to the penthouse for a personal welcome from Royal. Even
though Melville’s hedonistic bashes look like much more fun than the
Versailles-style shindigs thrown by Royal’s wife, Laing craves acceptance from
the upper floors. However, the ruthless Pangbourne and his claque keep kicking the
doctor back down to where he belongs. Meanwhile, documentarian and lower floor
resident Richard Wilder craves Melville, but she will never willingly lower
herself to his level. Her rejection will partly fuel the rage that transforms
him into a class warrior—and a rapist. (Names are also destiny in the High-Rise.)
sort of coherent ideological, socio-economic satire, Wheatley’s High-Rise is a complete mess.
Unfortunately, every departure from Ballard’s source novel (and its themes of
tribalism and over-crowding) muddles the narrative rather than simplifying it.
What was conceived more as a Malthusian parable Wheatley tries to fit into a
Marxian box, but it simply does not fit. In fact, he largely loses control of
the film’s political implications.
be frank, there is no capitalism going on in High-Rise. Instead, it is the very model of a modern major
socialist state. Inside the building, the distribution of resources is rigidly controlled
by the paternalistic Royal. It is a closed system that breeds dependency. As
far as we know, there is no reason residents could not shop outside the
building, yet they resort to eating dogs when the social order breaks down.
High-Rise better illustrates the
Burkean defense of class structure as a necessary bulwark against anarchy,
causing the lower classes to suffer just as much as the rich, if not more so.
Perhaps realizing the disconnect, Wheatley tacks on a risibly didactic epilogue
featuring the audio of Margaret Thatcher speaking on the benefits of capitalism
while his roving camera takes in the wreckage wrought by the preceding bedlam, but
it makes no sense considering the events in question still take place in the
1975 of Ballard’s novel, four years before the green grocer’s daughter
dispatched the ineffectual James Callaghan.
some ways, High-Rise’s merits perversely
work against it, particularly Jeremy Iron’s wry, multi-dimensional performance
as Royal, which manages to humanize the very tippy-top of the one percent.
Similarly, Luke Evans brings brutish menace to bear as Wilder, the Che-like
Wilder. Tom Hiddleston’s Laing is fittingly passive, but much like Equals, the real star of High-Rise are the striking concrete and
steel architectural backdrops, incorporating the work of production designer Mark
Tildesley’s team and the era-appropriate locations, most notably including the
Bangor Leisure Centre. It truly looks like a building that will have
internal logic of High-Rise is
thinner than its characterization. Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump give absolutely
no explanation why the more vulnerable residents do not simply leave the
building’s chaos, presumably hoping viewers will fill in the holes with their
pre-existing familiarity with Ballard’s novel. This is a rather sketchy
filmmaking strategy that is reflected in the haphazard final product. Not
recommended, High-Rise screens again
today (4/22) at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and also April 30th
at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Labels: Ben Wheatley, British Cinema, Dystopian Cinema, Jeremy Irons, JG Ballard, Tom Hiddleston, Tribeca '16