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Friday, 1 April 2016

High Rise: plenty of surface

Whenever anyone asks me about my favourite opening line from a book, (yes, that happens all the time), I invariably quote JG Ballard’s introduction to 'High Rise':
 “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.”

Nobody does dystopian fiction quite like Ballard and 'High Rise' is one of his best novels, so I was really looking forward to seeing Ben Wheatley’s filmic adaptation. The story is set in an exclusive high-facility tower block in London sometime in the mid-70s (or, as the director would have it, in a future that could have been imagined sometime in the 1970s). The upper-middle classes occupy the top floors, with the lower-middle classes down below. In the Ballardian world, there is always tension just beneath the surface and order soon begins to break down, allowing the brutal subconscious desires of the well-to-do residents to emerge. The factions start to engage in a territorial war, during which they drown pets in the swimming pool, rape women and, eventually, carry out ritualistic murders.  

For all that it tries to be faithful to the spirit of the book, Wheatley’s 'High Rise' is something of a disappointment. Ballard’s work is never focused on the dialogue between characters, but this never feels like an issue in his largely allegorical fiction. Banal dialogue, however, is a problem for the film, compounding the impression that it lacks any sense of narrative drive. Some of the set-pieces pull too much towards farce and it is hard to care about any of the characters; it feels, at times, like a surreal sitcom inhabited by class-warfare caricatures. The transition from order to chaos, skilfully chronicled in the minatory detail of the novel, is clumsily handled; in fact, it is barely ‘handled’ at all. We are asked to believe that a few power-cuts would lead these dentists, advertising executives, accountants and neuro-surgeons to embrace the rapid descent from posh dinner parties to ‘Lord of the Flies’ savagery.

The peremptory use of a Margaret Thatcher speech at the end of the film is heavy-handed, to say the least; it’s as if the director suspected that he hadn’t quite made the point about whose ‘fault’ it was that the residents of the tower block had been so eager to immerse themselves in lawlessness.    

The film looks good but it feels self-consciously arty, to the extent that it reminded me of the kind of thing that Peter Greenaway used to do: plenty of surface, but little in the way of substance.

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