I'm making the effort to catch up on some of the films I missed on their initial release, and the first on my list is High Rise, just published on DVD, based on the novel of the same name by the infamous J.G. Ballard.
It's a depressing, unpleasant, and deeply cynical film. It's also very, very funny in parts. It'd be hard to call it a comedy, yet I laughed harder at moments in this film than I have in almost any recent comedy I can think of. It could only ever have been made in the UK. No one but the British can muster this combination of deep-seated cynicism and black humour. We have this core feeling that someday, somehow, things are going to get worse, and this ludicrous stiff-upper-lippedness in the face of it. Ballard's novels, and darkly absurd films from Python to Brass Eye, are as unwholesomely British as they come.
Ballard's novel was published in 1975, and producer Jeremy Thomas has been trying to get a film adaptation made pretty much since. It's a film that you'd perhaps expect Cronenberg to have made, given that he adapted Ballard's own Crash for the screen, and that Rabid evokes the same urban claustrophobia in its horror. Instead, Ben Wheatley directed this, bringing the same dour realism and acidic humour as he did with Sightseers. Amy Jump's script tweaks the details but retains the same story as the novel: an all-inclusive tower block acting as a microcosm of society (particularly 20th century English society), and its bizarre yet inevitable collapse into barbarism.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with Tom Hiddleston taking centre stage as reclusive surgeon Laing. 2015 saw Hiddleston appear in a number of gothic horror stories, and High Rise is not too far removed; the twisted architecture of the gothic tradition updated to this concrete monstrosity. Laing's gradual journey to insanity is the core narrative, but more gripping is the breakdown suffered by his neighbour Wilder (a magnetic turn by Luke Evans). Although Laing considers Wilder "the sanest man in the building," he displays a barely contained viciousness from the beginning. As his condition escalates - literally, as he ascends the floors in search of the architect, the gloriously unsubtly named Royal (Jeremy Irons) - he becomes both more bestial and more in control of his environment.
The women in the block, and the cast, fare worse. Sienna Miller's Charlotte is a sex object from the start, and she suffers the most from Wilder's violence. No female character fares well, though, all too realistically suffering the most at the hands of men and the rules and restrictions of society break down. Ultimately, though, the men are punished for their brutality, with all but a few lost at the hands of the now-dominant female survivors.
High Rise is graphically sexual, unpleasantly so, showing lust and sexual power play in its most degrading and animalistic light. Considering this along with the violence, and you have to wonder what a film has to do to get an 18 certificate in this country these days.
Perhaps this reflects that society has crept closer to the horror that Ballard envisaged. It's possible to read many philosophies into High Rise: anti-classist, anti-capitalist, anti-establishment, anti-war, pro-tribalism. Wheatley and Jump's final scene indicates their anti-Thatcher slant. Fundamentally, and like so much of Ballard's work, it's about the thin line between civilised society and our aggressive, fractious nature. It can be seen in events throughout the 20th and 21st century, from the catastrophic tribal warfare in Rwanda to the vicious power play in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to the sudden explosions of violence by individuals in the news every day. To appreciate High Rise you have to accept the absurdity that not one character attempts to get help from the outside, and only a few even contemplate leaving. It makes sense in the metaphor, though, and I feel it would have been even more powerful if we had never seen the events that took place beyond the walls of the block.
At one point in the film, Laing says that he is "living in a future that has already taken place." Like much dystopian fiction, High Rise exists in a lost future, one which can no longer come to pass. The architectural revolution of the tower block faltered and died, and now, the idea of the rich and upwardly mobile clamouring to move into such a building is ludicrous. Tower blocks have long been synonymous with crime and social decay, albeit of a wholly different, more mundane order to that of the story. The decision to evoke the era of the novel's publication was a wise one, for High Rise is a shadow of the fears of a man at a particular time, yet one with unsettling echoes in the country, and the world, today. It's a nasty, chaotic, unsettling film, and hugely affecting. Don't watch it with the dog.