The novel of the film High Rise began with: 'Later, 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.' How do you follow that? With an unwatchable epic or a brilliant portrayal of the dangers of Thatcher's capitalism? A wicked satire or a brilliant clinical breakdown of every type of social relationship? I guess opinions will be as polarised as mine, as I headed home from High Rise certainly not clear headed but bewildered, battered and brutalised by Ben Wheatley's depiction of JD Ballard's 1975 work.
First off, there is no story. Events just happen in this pocket universe of urban development, sparking and spreading like a flash fire in the High Rise flats. Aftershocks penetrate every floor with powerful reactions, from the lower class residents at the bottom to the so called privileged high above and finally to God himself, the powerful Architect, played by Jeremy Irons.
The world on the top and 40th floor could not be more different to the gloomy, crowded and chaotic conditions on the lower levels. Here the Architect has created a green Utopia on the roof, as manicured as a stately home, complete with a white long haired dog, pet goat and a white horse – as 'My wife rides.' She too favours floating in white. How she ever gets a gallop in that restricted space is not explained… The penthouse is covered in sumptuous shag pile (carpet, for those not familiar with the 70's), white sofas, with heavy ornate formal furniture round the white walls, an almost floating glass draughtsman table for the Architect to perfect his plans for further High Rise towers, his vision for new type of society. Access to it is managed by the thick archetypical thug who shoves people in and out of the exclusive lift. It reminded me of the evil eerie of a James Bond villain. All that was missing was the white fat pampered cat. But perhaps it had been eaten by that time, before they moved onto the dog.
In this vertical township, 'A crucible for change,' according to the Architect, appear two main characters, the rest are cannon fodder to the dystopic savagery which results from: 'The psychological pressures of High Rise life… thriving like an advanced species in a neutral atmosphere.' Designed to anticipate every rational human need, the building merely succeeded in triggering subconscious desires for chaos and destruction, a need to vandalise its supposed perfection. The only clear lines of demarcation are between the lower and upper residents as mayhem caused by the breakdown of perfection i.e. the lift, the multiplying bags of refuse which accumulate due to the waste chute not working, the power cuts and the perceived injustices experienced by the lower residents boils over, or actually erupts like a volcanic lava, spewing out into every crevice of the High Rise.
Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) lives on the 27th middle class level floor and Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) from the lower end. Laing is so clean cut, with elegant suits, tie, pinned down collar, that even when events descend into anarchy he struggles to manage to generate any stubble until the very end. He was pictured against mirrors, silhouetted against the light, his features etched in profile, every inch James Bond: tall, fit, bulging with muscles, bedding every woman that came his way, even a nine month pregnant lady from the lower floors who gravitates into his sphere under cover of the worst mayhem. Yes, just like in Bond – easy sex, lots of violence then walk away.
Wilder (Luke Evans) was the angry man from the 70's with long side burns and dark Engelbert Humperdinck blood stained looks. The exact opposite of Laing, reactively over the top, leader of the anarchists, he does it all: leads invasions into upper class territory, notably with all the lower end children to invade an elite swimming party, wantonly destroys, maims, rapes. At least Laing's conquests were consensual. Laing and Wilder are not exactly in opposition but neither do they work together. They like everyone else in the High Rise, they co-exist, shift and merge, rage, split allegiances, slither like amoeba, reaching out a hand or fighting fist as circumstances dictate.
So what is it about, apart from being yet another grotesque film showing us how near we all are to moving from Utopia to Anarchy? I still don't know what to think, or even what I was supposed to think. After a while you get tired of the splurging mass of humanity at its most bestial, the pointless sick orgies, the lack of hope and I kept wanting some good to come out of it. For soon everyone who could be would be maimed, dead or violated and something had to come next. But there is no hint of what. Was the world supposed to end in 1970? Obviously it didn't, which is a problem for a futuristic film set in the 70's, as seen now.
Not even when the young boy Toby (Louis Suc) at the end, who saw it all through the end of a toy kaleidoscope as he peered from balconies, down torchlight stairways, through holes in ceilings, sat on top of an elaborate construction of metal and aerials to listen to a broadcast by Margaret Thatcher was I any nearer to fathoming out what this was about. Whilst I am old enough to remember vividly the 70's, the kindest thing I can say is this film was not targeted at me. But the question is who was it intended for?
High Rise is now showing at FACT. See times and book your tickets here.