By Jeremy Dewar
A 1975 apartment block plays host to Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of the eponymous JG Ballard novel, which portrays what antihero psychologist Robert Laing terms “a future that has already happened”. The film descends into an orgy of sex and violence, the context for an allegorical critique of class society.
As you might expect, the floor you’re on indicates your position in the system. Laing (Tom Hiddlestone) lives on the 25th, while the architect and owner, Anthony Royal, occupies the penthouse suite on the 35th and Helen Wilder, heavily pregnant and surrounded by kids and squalor, the basement. The characters’ allegorical names reinforce the unsubtle theme.
The premise seems strangely prescient today with social cleansing: council flats being demolished and residents evicted to make way for more affluent newcomers, in a dog-eat-dog world (indeed the residents do resort to eating dogs in the apocalyptic finale).
But this is no social realist film. It reminded me of Clockwork Orange or even Eraserhead in its retro-future horror and dysfunctional characters. In the way that it descends into violence, rape and murder, where no one seems to hold any moral high ground, and its critique of Thatcherite capitalism, it is a bit like Fight Club too.
The plot has the reclusive Royal befriend Laing. He lives detached from the tenants in a dreamworld, where his wife rides a horse on the roof garden dressed as a medieval damsel, and he holds fancy dress parties where everyone turns up as 18th Century aristocrats.
But the tenants are restless. The supermarket on the 12th floor runs out of food, with only booze for sale. Constant power cuts are the last straw. Richard Wilder, a TV technician, social climber and womaniser, discovers the woman he has been grooming has given birth to Royal’s son. Driven on by jealousy, class hatred and machismo, he leads a revolt, trashing a private party in the swimming pool before heading for the penthouse.
High-Rise is well worth seeing for its absurd visual jokes and imagery, but also for its savage critique on neoliberal capitalism – it ends with Thatcher’s voice proclaiming the virtues of privatisation. But it is no socialist propaganda. On the contrary, Wheatley prefers simply to condemn capitalism, predicting its downfall but also its capacity to regenerate the same horrors over again.
In this way, it is in the tradition of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu plays: surreal, grotesque and fin-de-siecle.
High-Rise, 2015, 1h59, dir. Ben Wheatley