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Infernal tower

Phil Pawlett Jackson

Affection for the vintage of JG Ballard’s novel adds nostalgia to the explosive political and psychological powder keg that is High-Rise

Architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) with Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory) in High Rise.
Architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) with Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory) in High Rise.

Nothing I’d read about this film prepared me for the stomach churning violence of it, but it is intelligently made and breathlessly visual. Deemed unfilmable for 40 years, J G Ballard’s novel has long loomed large in the imagination of architects. The dystopian narrative considers the fate of sophisticated residents as they settle in to the eponymous high-rise, a fictional luxury development in Docklands presided over by penthouse resident and designer Anthony Royal (played in the film by Jeremy Irons).

Gazing up the cliff-face of the apartment block’s possibility and terror, brave director Ben Wheatley and his team have brought the building to life in an exquisite film that is, like the book, unhinged and snarling with savage political prescience.

In this prophetic work, Dr Robert Laing and the cast of proto-yuppie sophisticates move into a newly constructed exclusive enclave in east London on the eve of Thatcher’s rise to power. And if High-Rise was not built in Canary Wharf then, it is certainly available for sale now.

Cranky tower - Anthony Royal's design for the eponymous High Rise.
Cranky tower - Anthony Royal's design for the eponymous High Rise. Credit: Michael Eaton Studio Canal

Amy Jump’s script for the film retains this political dimension of property which has renewed salience in 2016. In one devastating scene a bestial cabinet of privileged, white, male upper floor residents plots to Balkanise the lower floors, dangling the carrot of social advancement by property ownership, in garish allegory for Help-to-Buy. Royal, a ‘modernist by trade’ also indulges his wife’s predilection for baroque furnishing. It is as if Wheatley’s team has torn pages from the interior design of Donald Trump’s Manhattan apartment to make a Richard Hamilton collage. Elsewhere the heroic, dilapidated aesthetic recalls Iwan Baan’s photographic veneration of the Torre de David vertical slum in Caracas. 

This riot of references invites viewers to consider the self-serving subterfuge of society’s elites: in response to the seventies oil crises; and today, seeking tribal security among their own during the financial crisis. 

From the tower of Babel to the more recent left-field economic hypothesis for predicting crises – the ‘Skyscraper Index’ – tall buildings have attracted unusual attention from visionaries and doom-sayers. They are both a totem for fetishised building technology and a lightning rod for social discontent. And, while it would be a significant under-reading of Ballard to view his 1975 book, High-Rise, as a story ‘about’ a skyscraper, a mere cautionary tale about tall buildings, or a parable for Paddington Pole protesters, the titular tower is yet the central character. Its malevolent anthropomorphism is faithfully rendered from the book as an inhabitable Frankenstein, ironically well-tailored to serve the residents’ mania and narcissism.

  • Raw concrete meets 1970s kitsch in High Rise.
    Raw concrete meets 1970s kitsch in High Rise. Credit: Studio Canal
  • Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) in High Rise.
    Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) in High Rise.
  • Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) in the film.
    Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) in the film.
  • Cosy it is not. Uncompromising – certainly.
    Cosy it is not. Uncompromising – certainly. Credit: Aidan Monaghan Studio Canal

Drawing from the text and from Ballard’s known admiration for the stark concrete expression of Goldfinger’s Trellick and Balfron Towers, the production team have fashioned an iconic form in a mannered, and quite British, brutalist style. It also borrows the muscular swooping soffits of Preston Bus Station, and bristles with the Barbican’s armoured corrugation of béton brut shuttering.

The upper echelons of this rugged, leering monolith veer off vertiginously to the right, in form as in political outlook. This gives the deranged elevation a look of having been built to match a recorded image on a paused VCR, skewed and flickering with psychotic menace as the power fails on the lower floors. In this and other details, the film rewards rewatching, embellishing layers of Ballardian visual jokes on the relationship between architectural production and the role of media.

The original High-Rise was written as the last in an informal quartet, preceded by Atrocity Exhibition, Crash and Concrete Island, which Ballard completed in the early 70s. They marked a move away from his earlier, more conventionally located science fiction towards an obsession with what he considered the strange psychopathologies of modern urban life. 

Producer Jeremy Thomas & Director Ben Wheatley on the set.
Producer Jeremy Thomas & Director Ben Wheatley on the set.

Wheatley’s tower achieves this in the ominous hulk viewed from a distance and briefly also when the lower floor maverick, Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), forays into the rotted ducting of the building’s cadaver. However, the scope to survey the dysfunctional organ systems and dissect the mechanical servicing visually on screen has been constrained by budget, relegated to a worthy speech by Laing (Tom Hiddleston) observing the lifts as heart chambers and arteries to the building. Other visceral medical footage makes the point, but the relation between the dying whole and the individual warring parts is lost. So is the important and subtle vertical pecking order – measured on a scale of balconies up the building’s elevation – so the crucial stratification of class is obscured in the film. 

The allegorical role of the architecture as a whole recedes as the claustrophobic orgy of chaotic human violence gathers pace within. Here Wheatley incisively gives priority to the psychological turn inwards, very much Ballard’s intent, accurately rendering the film more Oedipus complex than Edifice complex.

Ballard created this regressive man-eat-dog human zoo as a fully believable Petri dish for unfettered deviant human instincts. This is a portrait of the engine room of contemporary consumer capitalism, where the home is completely objectified as a theatre for ­voyeurism and the projection of fantasy. 

In the maelstrom of the high-rise, Laing is shown returning to childhood, his suit shrinking through the film to preppy shorts and undersized shirt, finally losing the tie. 

However, Laing’s passivity as a protagonist presents a problem for film adaption, so Wheatley has developed a second empathetic character, Toby, as Charlotte Melville’s bastard child with Royal. This character is approximately the same age as the director was in the 70s, and gives us the precocious child’s-eye view. It is a manoeuvre made popular by Wes Anderson, who also visits this era’s kitsch to sentimental ironic effect in his films like The Royal Tenenbaums. 

The film is a nostalgic period drama piece which fetishises the seventies aesthetic, complete with the mid-century furniture that today’s hipsters covet to set among the Barbican flats their parents have bought them. The danger is that these are precisely the forces energising social division. 

Following Ballard’s 1970 exhibition ‘Crashed Cars’ of three wrecks in a Camden gallery, Jo Stanley, the actress employed to conduct interviews semi-naked with the guests at the private view, reflected that the event was something of a ‘bourgeois binge’. Among the film’s great strengths, it could be added that in this way too, Wheatley’s interpretation of Ballard is peculiarly Ballardian. 

High-Rise, directed by Ben Wheatley and starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss, is on general release in the UK from 18 March