The tower block as a weapon of social commentary is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, its stratified nature, quite literally allowing people to be physically grouped above and below each other, is rich with symbolism. It helps that post WWII, these concrete behemoths were presented as beacons of progress offering good homes to all, beacons that quickly lost lustre as buildings descended into neglected warzones or in the case of their newer, plusher equivalents, luxury elite hangouts. However, when the symbolism is so blindingly obvious, it might encourage laziness. That’s exactly the problem High-Rise suffers from, replacing an ambitious and wickedly entertaining first half with crude confusion.
It takes an author of J.G. Ballard’s ability to navigate such choppy waters. His 1975 novel is replete with gruesome violence and wry humour as the inhabitants of the tower throw off social convention and turn on each other with regressive abandon. Ever since its release, famed British producer Jeremy Thomas has been angling for an adaptation. He’s achieved it now with Ben Wheatley, who also co-writes the screenplay with partner Amy Jump, at the helm. It’s a pity a promising start is squandered so badly.
Our path into the tower is newcomer Dr. Robert Laing (the ever suave Tom Hiddleston), an urbane and secretive social climber who lives within himself. He’s alone in life, not even bothering to unpack boxes of belongings that litter his apartment. Trapped between the higher and lower reaches, he finds he’s never truly part of either. Summoned by Royal (Jeremy Irons), the building’s architect who set out to create utopia and fell far short, he gets invited to parties and quickly mocked by Royal’s wife (Keeley Hawes) and her faux-aristocratic cronies. Down below, he sort of gets on with Luke Evans’ abrasive documentarian Richard Wilder and his wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss), and mixes with upstairs neighbour Charlotte (Sienna Miller) who takes a liking to him. This part of the tower is less clear; people from all walks of life summarily lumped together.Early exchanges see Laing thread a path between the groups, gradually giving up the outside world until he barely bothers to go to work. There’s no need to leave the building anyway. It contains squash courts and swimming pools, a supermarket, and legend has it, even a brothel. Not that Laing needs to look too far for sex. Hiddleston excels as the good doctor, locking him into buttoned-up mode, his face a frozen mask that only occasionally lets out genuine reactions, and then most often in the form of a dispassionate remark.
Aided by Clint Mansell’s creative score, the best use of ABBA in recent times, Mark Tildesley’s fantastic production design – they converted a 1970’s sports centre for the interiors – and a witty script, it’s enormously entertaining. The opening scene, complete with tongue-in-cheek voiceover, makes it clear this looming rectangle will descend into chaos. The fun comes in waiting for the fall. Amusing non sequiturs and blasé snobbishness light up a series of wild parties. Outside the debauchery, Royal talks with sadness of his dreams. He wanted a better world and created an even more unequal one. When resources become scarce, opposing camps form and conflict breaks out, yet this environment free of the strictures of the modern world is so liberating, no one is willing to leave.And here it all collapses. An extended montage marks the moment High-Rise falls in on itself, group hysteria developing hysterically into an orgy of violence, and then just an orgy. Crude allusions are drawn between the attitude of the rich, a base caricature of the ruling classes, and the helplessness of the poor, a hodgepodge of everyone else, unwilling to look elsewhere and unable to get what they need. Suddenly, James Purefoy’s arrogant businessman is discussing the possibility of leading a raiding party to clear out several floors which can then be converted into cricket nets and a clubhouse. Wives are traded as the inhabitants descend into hunter-gatherers, but not before characters are handed dialogue to explain it all with casual simplicity. It’s Ballard boiled and reduced to childish symbolism.
The closing scene succinctly highlights all the problems in High-Rise. Margaret Thatcher’s voice crackles over the radio proclaiming the value of free-enterprise over state involvement. It’s ok, the voice suggests, to tear down society and allow self-appointed cream to rise to the top, suffocating all below. Bring the lower tiers in far enough and they’ll push back but never leave, remaining at the bottom ripe for exploitation. Except it shouldn’t have to be spelled out to this degree. What’s the point of allegory when deeper meaning is stripped out and laid bare on the surface, shorn of the complexity that marks Ballard’s work? And how on earth are different sides to be pitted against each other when one camp looks like it fell out of a student political cartoon and the other is an ill-thought through amalgamation of everyone else? Wheatley has created a stylish and often darkly funny adaptation that manages to muddle key elements and dumb down others, presenting a conclusion so blandly evident there’s barely any point.