Architecture is often destiny. Take for instance Ralph Rapson’s explicitly utopian project, Cedar Square West (now called Riverside Plaza) in Minneapolis. It was conceived to house city residents across the entire economic spectrum (Mary Richards moved on up to the building in the final two seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show), but as CSW developed maintenance problems, it became exclusively low income housing, marked by decidedly short-term residencies (suggesting people move out as soon as they can afford to). The imposing complex designed by Anthony Royal is sort of the British retro-Brutalist leftist dystopian version of Cedar Square West. Despite its initial prestige, Royal’s building is even less livable for tenants in Ben Wheatley’s J.G. Ballard adaptation, High-Rise (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
As he looks back on his relatively short time as a High-Rise resident, Dr. Robert Laing grills up a leg of one of the last formerly surviving pet canines, so we know he is a survivor. Moving into the building is quite a coup at the time. The fact that the terrace of attractive single mother Charlotte Melville overlooks his own is a nice bonus. He quickly recognizes her status as the alpha queen of the middle floors’ social scene.
Rather surprisingly, Laing is summoned to the penthouse for a personal welcome from Royal. Even though Melville’s hedonistic bashes look like much more fun than the Versailles-style shindigs thrown by Royal’s wife, Laing craves acceptance from the upper floors. However, the ruthless Pangbourne and his claque keep kicking the doctor back down to where he belongs. Meanwhile, documentarian and lower floor resident Richard Wilder craves Melville, but she will never willingly lower herself to his level. Her rejection will partly fuel the rage that transforms him into a class warrior—and a rapist. (Names are also destiny in the High-Rise.)
As any sort of coherent ideological, socio-economic satire, Wheatley’s High-Rise is a complete mess. Unfortunately, every departure from Ballard’s source novel (and its themes of tribalism and over-crowding) muddles the narrative rather than simplifying it. What was conceived more as a Malthusian parable Wheatley tries to fit into a Marxian box, but it simply does not fit. In fact, he largely loses control of the film’s political implications.
Let’s be frank, there is no capitalism going on in High-Rise. Instead, it is the very model of a modern major socialist state. Inside the building, the distribution of resources is rigidly controlled by the paternalistic Royal. It is a closed system that breeds dependency. As far as we know, there is no reason residents could not shop outside the building, yet they resort to eating dogs when the social order breaks down.
Arguably, High-Rise better illustrates the Burkean defense of class structure as a necessary bulwark against anarchy, causing the lower classes to suffer just as much as the rich, if not more so. Perhaps realizing the disconnect, Wheatley tacks on a risibly didactic epilogue featuring the audio of Margaret Thatcher speaking on the benefits of capitalism while his roving camera takes in the wreckage wrought by the preceding bedlam, but it makes no sense considering the events in question still take place in the 1975 of Ballard’s novel, four years before the green grocer’s daughter dispatched the ineffectual James Callaghan.
In some ways, High-Rise’s merits perversely work against it, particularly Jeremy Iron’s wry, multi-dimensional performance as Royal, which manages to humanize the very tippy-top of the one percent. Similarly, Luke Evans brings brutish menace to bear as Wilder, the Che-like Wilder. Tom Hiddleston’s Laing is fittingly passive, but much like Equals, the real star of High-Rise are the striking concrete and steel architectural backdrops, incorporating the work of production designer Mark Tildesley’s team and the era-appropriate locations, most notably including the Bangor Leisure Centre. It truly looks like a building that will have maintenance issues.