JG Ballard’s 1975 novel High
Doctor Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into an apartment on one of the upper floors of a luxury tower block. He meets the neighbour above him, sultry single mum Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), when she drops a wine bottle on his balcony and it explodes while he lies naked on a lounger dozing. After an appreciative appraisal, Charlotte invites Robert to a party that evening, where he discovers that his section of the building is peopled by a rather debauched group who enjoy drinking, drugging and shagging to excess. Architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the building’s designer, occupies the incredibly opulent penthouse suite, which includes a roof garden that is home to a horse and other animals kept there for the amusement of his wife (Keeley Hawes).
It doesn’t take a political science degree to surmise the building’s allegorical arrangement, with a Royal on the top floor and working its way down through the classes to the plebs loitering in and above the lobby. The classes intermingle uneasily in common areas including the market, the gym and the pool, and as parts of the building start faltering and malfunctioning, the people on the lower floors start complaining loudly that their electricity is being shut off while the upper floors’ supply continues uninterrupted. Tensions continue to rise as more things malfunction, and the conflicts build until violence erupts and the building’s social order disintegrates into anarchy.
High Rise overflows with jet black humour but rarely descends into outright slapstick, despite the physical nature of much of the action. Just as in director Ben Wheatley’s previous films Kill List and Sightseers, the violence is depicted with brutish seriousness and rarely provokes laughs. Hiddleston leads the charge as the perfectly vapid Laing, who initially wanders through the increasing mayhem as an almost neutral observer, while the others around him, including Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss and Fast and Furious’ Luke Evans, descend into casual savagery with unrestrained glee.
The genius of Ballard’s novel is the prescient nature of his assertion that the entire edifice of civilisation is extremely fragile; all it takes to initiate an irrevocable break down of the high rise’s social order is a power failure on a few floors. We’ve seen, in the 40 years since the book was published, a near collapse of the financial order of the west and an increasing polarisation between the working and ruling classes. Many people are genuinely worried about the stability of the social order, while they have been deluded into believing that the culture and the economy will continue to function as long as they’re not tampered with (why else be so fearful of gay marriage or socialised medicine?)
Ballard and Wheatley are an excellent match, and their combined vision shines a blinding light on class divisiveness and the delicate, fragile nature of society; Wheatley’s contribution lies in ensuring that Ballard’s story has lost none of its perceptive brilliance in the transfer from page to screen.