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Review: High-Rise

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High-Rise may be set in the seventies but the topics it explores are more relevant to today’s social problems, finds Laura Mark

J G Ballard’s High Rise is one of those books, like the Fountainhead, which pretty much all architects claim to have read. Now here’s the point where I admit – I haven’t read it. Previously dubbed as ‘unadaptable’ after forty years the novel has now been made into a movie starring Tom Hiddleston and Sienna Miller.

In this film, director Ben Wheatley has managed to capture the discontent which ensues in Ballard’s fictional skyscraper in glorious detail.

Set in a fictional mid-seventies era, in this high-rise apartment block a world of social divide exists. With the rich, sophisticated society of ‘tycoons and entrepreneurs’ living towards the top of the fictional tower block and the lower, social classes of film technicians and working mums living below. They are all presided over by the architect Anthony Royal, played in the film by Jeremy Irons. His apartment sits at the top of the tower and features a perfectly looked after walled garden in which his wife rides around on a white horse.

The visuals of the tower are stunning – a harsh concrete Brutalism borrowing from the towers of Erno Goldfinger with Corbusier, Birmingham Library and Preston Bus Station thrown into the mix. There is even one scene, near the beginning of the film, when its main character Dr Laing played by Hiddleston, first moves into his new home and shows his appreciation for the Brutalist materiality with some classic concrete stroking.

The 40-storey tower has everything – from a swimming pool to a supermarket. But it is the fact that this tower has everything – and the residents have no need to leave – that creates the discontent. They are bored and stir-crazy. Drug-fuelled parties and revelling ensue. As the film unfolds the community within the tower descends from an optimistic new community to a savage tribe.

The building itself is seen as living organism – its lifts and services the beating heart and organs of this throbbing being. And when they begin to fail, cue the power cuts, blocked rubbish chutes, and broken lifts, the utopian world begins to fall apart.

Like most of Ballard’s work it lacks plot so if you’re someone who likes a complicated storyline this probably isn’t the film for you. But visually it is fantastic.

Although extreme in the portrayal. The dystopian world the film portrays has some echoes of our present day world of gentrification, regeneration, divide and protests over modern-day towers. The issues which it highlights are all too real. This is a film for our time.

High-Rise, directed by Ben Wheatley, is out in cinemas from 18 March

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Readers' comments (3)

  • "Like most of Ballard's work it lacks plot"? I haven't watched the movie yet but I've read the book and while it might not be your standard movie linear narrative, the intertwined stories of the dwellers plus seeing how it all heads towards doom and chaos was more than enough for me.

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  • A fine cast squandered in a rather absurd 70's pastiche which becomes progressively more irritating as the film proceeds. I have now wasted my time reading the book and seeing the film. My advice would be to do neither.

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  • By some unfortunate coincidence, it appears a namesake of mine has a opinion entirely contrary to my own. As a consequence I am drawn to declare my own judgement. Reading J G Ballard's original book is certainly not a waste of anyone's time and I would highly recommend it. As for the film, I found it a very enjoyable watch. It is clear that it has been produced and directed with a great fondness for the original story, with a wit that draws out the nuanced surrealism, keen social observations and the cutting humour of the novel. The casting is well done and the sets are refreshingly reminiscent of the images conjured up in ones mind from the original text. The book is fantastic. Adapting this film into a entertaining and rich film is a valiant, worthwhile, and in many ways an enjoyable success.

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