Of all the authors that don’t give a shining s**t about the reception of their work, modern writers such as Thomas Pynchon and Will Self spring to mind. Into that mélange, throw late great, J.G. Ballard. Author of Cronenberg directed adaptation, Crash and Spielberg sortie, Empire of the Sun, his works are an acquired taste for an audience. The task for Billericay born director, Ben Wheatley is to bring the work of this famously deconstructionist author to screen. A heady task like no other.
Constructing ever upwards to the heady heights of the High Rise. Progress, into the future. Hit the accelerator. The Architect, a ghostly, brooding Jeremy Irons (in an awful dentist’s apron) is the god that rules this revolutionary roost. Atop the tower block sits the Architect’s penthouse suite. Complete with utopian garden and dashing white horse.
Ballard hurls references at the screen. The Architect’s wife, in her bizarre vision and stately sense of superiority (a supremely aloof Keeley Hawes), played out in the luscious lawns of the rooftop terrace, seems an obvious allusion to Marie Antoinette. While the French monarch fell, Louis XVI’s wife spent her time in sultry seclusion, fostering the english garden and the Trianon at Versailles. Guillotines fell and revolution struck the streets. Social upheaval did little to upset her tranquility.
The message is clear. The Architect’s head is clearly for the chopping block. Surely this must be the case, and soon too. As our protagonist, Dr Laing, strides atop the penthouse perfection, all will fall. This utopian vision will collapse into itself. Like those 60s and 70s tower blocks that cascade concrete onto twenty first century tarmac. The dreams of social progress left strewn on the floor. In their place, spring the Canaries Wharf and financial districts of today’s dystopia.
The irony is that in the destruction of yesterday’s dreams, today’s nightmare sprouts into the skies in their place. The Colosseum still sits astride a roundabout in Rome. Will Canada Square still strut its steel in two millennia’s time? Hazarding a guess, I think not. Its glass will tumble into the grey abyss of the Thames. The constant pursuit of progress leas us projecting higher and higher into the scraping skies. The Shard. The Cheese Grater. Call it what you will. They represent the financial service factory farms of these 60s social housing disasters. A pet project to provoke pain.
In terms of modern cinema, Wheatley’s decision to set his tower block in the gaping expanses of Belfast’s port, lends the film a more general context, a District 9 type dystopian setting in which to distill this desert of society. But this is no South Africa. The city is on the horizon, but the future is already past. Dr Laing, topless Tom Hiddleston, some shameless showering scenes and naked sun bathing apart, is our perfect protagonist. A little too perfect, perhaps. His squeaky cleanliness out of step with his 70s, smoking counterparts on the twenty fifth floor. Laing is thrown out of time and place.
And into Sienna Miller’s loving arms. She is smoky (quite literally, given the amount of tobacco going down) and vixen like in her sexual appetites. She is the centre of the building and the attention of many a suitor. The least eligible bachelor, (given Hiddleston is top of the list, it is a pretty tough battle for anyone) is moustachioed welshman, Richard Wilder (Luke Evans). He resounds with ITV2 Vintage, coming across as a kind of Minder, The Professionals hybrid of 70s stereotype. Proto-Man, perhaps. His innocent and panicky Helen, a heavily pregnant Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men fame is his constantly troubled and depressive spouse.
Pitched battles happen in swimming pools (for the lower floors) and squash courts (for the upper elite). Green Wing gets a comedic nod in the hospital sets, parties take an Ancien Régime flavour for the exquisite…All periods mix and merge in the surreal setting of a seventies tower block. A personal favourite has to be the use of the corridor scenes as Laing’s only escape in dream is the weird diversion of strange fantasies. The Virgin ad ladies samba and stride with Laing in the middle. Their destination. No where. Hips will lie.
And that is the central message of the film (well, not hips.) Where are we going? Well, who cares when it is this funny? Coupling the qualities of Inherent Vice and The Lobster, High-Rise is surreal, dystopian comedy at its summit. For those who enjoy tundra dry wit and darker than dark humour, this is Black Mirror standard fare. For those left flat after Hail, Caesar! here is a film to make you laugh. And laugh it does across many a floor. Rofl.
Image Courtesy of Youtube.