Ballard rises


(c) Recorded Picture Company / Film4 / StudioCanal


J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise, about a community living in a towering luxury apartment complex who gradually lose their marbles and grow dysfunctional and then dystopian, was first published in 1975.  However, I read it a decade later, after I’d become a massive fan of Ballard’s stories of psychological and sociological aberration.  So in my mind the novel is connected more with the 1980s.  I imagined the book’s well-heeled but losing-it characters as sleek Thatcherite yuppies.  Indeed, a few years after I read it, the Canary Wharf business district, including the 50-floor One Canada Square that for many years was Britain’s tallest building, started to spring up in east London.


Now, an additional three decades later, director Ben Wheatley, producer Jeremy Thomas and scriptwriter Amy Jump have unveiled their film version of High Rise and given it a strongly retro-1970s aesthetic.  Thus, when I watched it the other day, it was slightly discombobulating to see a book written in the 1970s, read by me in the 1980s, brought to the screen in the 2010s and set in a world that is the filmmakers’ exaggerated reimagining of the 1970s.


Just how retro-1970s is Wheatley and co.’s take on High Rise?  Answer: very.  There’s the stylistically gruesome 1970s – blokes wear flared trousers and have shit moustaches (Luke Evans’ moustache is particularly shit), ladies totter about on platform heels, everyone puffs on cigarettes.  There’s the happy, silly 1970s – Abba get referenced with a version of SOS, though it’s actually Portishead doing a slow, spooky rendition of the song.  And there’s the apocalyptic 1970s, the 1970s that had Britain’s conservatives worried their country was going to hell in a handcart – we catch a glimpse of Mary Whitehouse’s least favourite children’s comic, the notoriously violent Action (or ‘the seven-penny nightmare’ as it was dubbed by horrified tabloids); and we hear punk rock arrive in the form of Mark E. Smith of the Fall snarling his way through 1979’s Industrial Estate.  And the piles of garbage that accumulate with disconcerting speed in the high-rise building’s foyer bring to mind Britain’s strike-plagued Winter of Discontent in 1978/79.


(c) Recorded Picture Company / Film4 / StudioCanal


It’s no surprise that Wheatley has opted for this setting because 1970s British culture is clearly a big influence on him.  His earlier movies Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013) owe much to the 1970s British ‘folk horror’ films The Wicker Man (1973) and Blood on Satan Claw (1970); while his amusing black comedy about caravanning serial killers, Sightseers (2012), is a reworking of the famous 1976 TV play by Mike Leigh, Nuts in May (with a body count, obviously).  He’s also described the visionary British directors Nicholas Roeg, Ken Russell and John Boorman, all of whom hit their creative peak in the 1970s, as ‘the holy trinity’ for him.  I wonder if he was attracted to High Rise not so much because of the chance to film a J.G. Ballard novel as because of the fact that long ago it’d been a directorial project for his one of his heroes, Nicholas Roeg.


That’s not to say that Wheatley’s cinematic tastes diminish High Rise as an adaptation of a literary work.  It doesn’t lose the peculiar flavour of the original novel or its author. In fact, compared to the previous big movie versions of Ballard’s work, Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987) and David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), both of which bear the unmistakable stamp of their directors’ personalities, High Rise is the most Ballardian film of a Ballardian book yet.


We get that strange combination, so typical of Ballard, of well-bred, buttoned-up Englishness – like boys in a posh boarding school, the men in High Rise refer to one another by their surnames – and creeping madness.  In High Rise, like in much of his fiction, the characters tend not to resist the cataclysm that’s taking place around them. They conspire with and embrace it instead.  Here, while life in the building gradually goes tits-up through an escalating series of lift malfunctions, power-failures, water-stoppages and outbreaks of anti-social behaviour, its inhabitants don’t seem that bothered.  They celebrate the process by partying in the corridors and need little incentive before they graduate to staging raids against rival floors and finally to killing each other.


Tom Hiddleston neatly captures this unsettling blend of conventionality and insanity, repression and regression, in his portrayal of the main character, Robert Laing.  He’s a gentleman physiologist who moves into one of the building’s shiny new apartments but who never gets around to unpacking the stacks of boxes containing his possessions.  He ends up wearing the metallic grey paint he’s bought for redecorating the place like war-paint.  (This is after he nearly beats to death a customer who also wants the paint in the building’s 15th-storey supermarket: “It’s my paint!”)  By the movie’s finish – which also serves as its prologue – Hiddleston is acting out the novel’s opening line, which incidentally is one of the greatest opening lines in modern British literature: “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.”


(c) Recorded Picture Company / Film4 / StudioCanal


Wheatley is also well-served by the supporting cast, which includes Luke Evans, Sienna Miller, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Reece Shearsmith and Bill Paterson; and, in the role of Royal, the architect who designed the high rise and now lives at its top in an opulent penthouse surrounded by rooftop gardens, Jeremy Irons.  Early on, we see Irons and his wife hosting a fancy dress party with the theme of the Palace of Versailles, the Ancien Régime and Louis XVI, which is tempting fate when the less wealthy families on the lower floors are already getting pissed off about the faltering infrastructure.


High Rise won’t be everyone’s cup of tea and it doesn’t surprise me that it’s received mixed reviews, with detractors throwing around terms like ‘muddle’ and ‘dog’s dinner’.  Anyone expecting a straightforward yarn wherein folk in a block of flats go Lord of the Flies will be disappointed.  Ballard was never terribly interested in linear narratives and Wheatley honours the tradition by providing scenes that seem randomly hallucinogenic, comedic and horrific.  Like Ballard’s fiction generally, the film is stuffed with ideas that are played around with for a while before being discarded.  And given that some of the characters appear a bit unhinged even when the high rise is functioning normally, it’s a bit difficult to develop a logical plot here.  How do you chart a descent into collective madness when several participants seem mad anyway?


Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed High Rise and I assume other fans of J.G. Ballard’s work will enjoy it too; and I suspect the great man himself – who died in 2009 – would have got a big kick out of it.  I found the film enthralling and compulsive, disturbing and at times unfathomable; and since seeing it I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.  Which is the same effect that Ballard’s books have always had on me.  A result for Ben Wheatley, I’d say.