Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise
"In the literal act of performance there is room to talk about self as performance, and that is where High-Rise is strongest." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

I still don't know what I think about High-Rise. There are moments where I recall with clarity and with a crystalline fondness a moment of perfect translation - striking among them the repetition of the form of the titular tower in file boxes on filing cabinets as the protagonist sleeps away his time away from that allegorical monolith. There are moments where I am confronted with echoed concerns about tone and era and gender that suggest that so aptly does High-Rise challenge an author become adjective that each and all of his weaknesses are visited in new forms within the film.

Ballard gave us Ballardian - we are in an age that carries the influences of his visions of futurity and civility and modernity like trace sexual fluids trapped in the stitching of warm leatherette. Inescapable, inevitable, but perhaps only observable with a forensic detach that is less clinical than cold. From Ballard comes (at least) Cronenberg, Gibson, an author whose output was significant in volume and whose filmed output is also significant. Philip K Dick may have had more films drawn from his crap artist confessions, but where Dick's ubiquity is in questions of self and selves Ballard's senses are all reflections - fables of chrome.

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The film is undeniably strong, inventive - the score by Clint Mansell and the use of cover-versions to create thematic echoes at once draw from and create new forms of cinematic translation. Hiddleston manages in Laing to create an unhinged dispassion, Luke Evans as Richard Wilder is, well, Wilder - in a sense it is in the relation of individual components that Ballard wove and Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley's film holds to it tightly.

I did not care for the eponymous building. I am not meant to. 40 storeys means something different now, on the other side of the oil crisis, on the near side of a new one. The tower does not care. In its terraced balconies it creates exactly a circumstance where everyone above can look down upon Laing in a physical sense and everyone below is aware that he is above them but he cannot be seen at leisure. This is class signifier made concrete, or at least a more than convincing simulacrum. It is not the only one. Echoes abound, from period dress at parties to the dactyl crook of the architect's visions. Jeremy Irons' Anthony Royal is perhaps too forced - too arch - as if escaped from a less subtle interpretation. Yet in the literal act of performance there is room to talk about self as performance, and that is where High-Rise is strongest.

From above, his neighbours look down on Laing. "We thought you were empty", they say. They are not wrong.

Once I was employed by an outsource provider, in a place that had once been a factory that produced electronics that were no longer demanded. A call-centre where once telephones had been assembled. A component broke. An element too expensive to keep a spare, but sufficiently important that without it there was no work to do. I had for company a collection of - the complete - Ballard short stories. I sat, under flourescent lights, some distance from the motorway, ensconced in an technological relic become post-industrial irony, disconnected from the world, and read. As I read the weather turned, the sky darkened, and it began to rain. As I read a car sped north, bearing a replacement.

In the pairing of ideas - in this reinterpretative framework - in the act of considering the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as a downhill motor race, there is Ballard. This is in High-Rise.

Other echoes - it can be hard to read the (science) fiction of the era because the women (and that is if there are women) are names attached to things not men, and while of course there are exceptions Ballard's are too often rounded only in flesh. In the futurity of 40 years before there was room and intent for improvement. Not all of it is evident in the film. Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss and Keeley Hawes all deserve mention, but are not quite given enough to do. One wonders if some playfulness with gender in casting might have made roles like the Orthodontist Steele (Reece Shearsmith) more or differently compelling, if Neil Maskell's brief cameo as a visiting policeman might have been read differently if a WPC were asked to sweep something under the carpet.

One wonders if periodicity in tone and production design had been echoed at a technical level with miniatures in place of CG or similar would have made this a different thing. One wonders - if the song by The Fall that played over the credits had been Xanadu rather than Industrial Estate, would the film preceding them would have been cast in a different light? Yet in fugues and formal occasions and in beatings there are plenty of lights. In an apartment conceived as a perfect machine for living there seems to be no bin in the kitchen. There is a horse on the roof but whole floors lie in shadow. Events pass with an abandon that would do no disservice to the Garden of Time, montage and reflection, statements of decline.

At one point Royal, architect of High-Rise, states that "it wasn't that [he] left too many elements out, [he] put too many in". It could be the lament of any author. It functions, but perhaps not as intended. Portishead covering Abba sounds like Portishead covering Abba. There is a set for whom that will work well. There are sets for whom that will not work well. There is a set for whom the song is signifier rather than an end in itself. There are other sets. In translation new functions are found, new intents. It functions, but perhaps not as intended.

Hours into a day spent reading Ballard in a raining place that grew ever closer to his visions, the component arrived. Fittingly, it did not fit. The driver turned to try again.

Reviewed on: 05 Apr 2016
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High-Rise packshot
Class war breaks out in a tower block.
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Amber Wilkinson **1/2

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writer: Amy Jump, based on the novel by JG Ballard

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Dan Renton Skinner, Sienna Guillory, Enzo Cilenti, Peter Ferdinando, Reece Shearsmith, Augustus Prew, Stacy Martin, Leila Mimmack

Year: 2015

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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