JG Ballard‘s writing has always had a strong connection to music. The sleeve art for his 1970 book The Atrocity Exhibition featured in the V&A’s David Bowie Is… exhibition, acknowledging the debt Diamond Dogs and Low, in particular, owed to Ballard’s dystopian visions. Michael Moorcock – a frequent collaborator with Hawkwind – was an early champion of Ballard’s fiction during his tenure as editor of science fiction anthology New World. Elsewhere, Ballard’s elegant studies of urban alienation and societal breakdown have inspired bands across the decades, from Joy Division, Gary Numan, Blur, Suede and Radiohead, to a younger generation of musicians including Burial and The Klaxons.
But conspicuously, Ballard has not been so well served on film. Only a handful of Ballard novels have made it to the big screen – Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun and Cronenberg’s Crash are the most well-known, but there’s also Jonathan Weiss’s rarely screened adaptation of The Atrocity Exhibition, which debuted at Slamdance in 1999, and Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude – a Portuguese-Swedish co-production based on a short story, Low-Flying Aircraft.
It seems strange that Ballad hasn’t been more widely adapted: David Fincher, for instance, could make a decent job of Cocaine Nights or Super Cannes while Carol Morley would be a good fit for Running Wild and Amenábar or Cuarón well suited to Day Of Creation. But the perceived holy grail of Ballard adaptations is High-Rise. Ballard’s breakthrough novel crystallised many of the themes he returned to repeatedly during the course of his career: a mass psychosis where the victims retreat from the outside world. Since its publication in 1975, filmmakers from Nic Roeg to Canadian director Vincenzo Natali – along with screenwriters including Paul Mayersberg and Bruce Robinson – have tried unsuccessfully to bring it to cinemas. It’s worth noting that the same year High-Rise was published, David Cronenberg made Shivers – another film about breakdown in a suburban high-rise apartment building.
As with much of Ballard’s writing, High-Rise is remarkably prescient. In his memoir, Miracles Of Life, Ballard asked, “What if the everyday environment was itself a huge mental breakdown: how could we know if we were sane or psychotic?” This question threads through almost all of his work, but is most powerful when directed at the rational dismantling of middle-class sterility in High-Rise, and later in his final run of books, Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People and Kingdom Come. Books, essentially, set in exclusive enclaves like the billion-pound luxury apartment complexes like those at Nine Elms Lane and proposed in Shoreditch and Mount Pleasant. “It’s irritating to be reminded of the contingent world,” observes one character in Super-Cannes.
Despite such contemporary resonances, Ben Wheatley has elected to set his adaptation of High-Rise in 1975. The early Seventies were a good time for dystopian science fiction, of course: Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange made excellent use of London’s South Bank, which was in the same Brutalist architectural style as the inspiration for Ballard’s high rise block: Balfron Tower. Balfron Tower was a testbed for the utopian housing ideals of its architect, Erno Goldfinger, who for a while also lived in the tower’s penthouse (as does High-Rise’s own architect, Anthony Royal). Goldfinger envisaged large-scale public housing in almost romantic terms: he spoke of “streets in the sky” and landscaped private yards for the Balfron’s lower floor flats featuring shrubbery and trees. As if echoing Goldinger’s optimism, Ballard writes about “a new kind of twentieth century life” in his High-Rise. (In Ben Wheatley’s film, characters use aspirational phrases like “investment in the future” and “clean slate”.) But this, it transpires, “the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology”.
Much of Ballard’s work was informed by his experiences in occupied Shanghai during World War Two. In Miracles Of Life, he admits what most excited his imagination as a child were the shells of the city: a drained swimming pool, a bombed-out house, a ruined casino – which gave him a sense “that reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment”. As with the author’s best work, High-Rise is partly about dismantling that reality; a series of events initiated when the services in the tower block stop functioning properly. Accordingly, after its prim, orderly beginnings, where Tom Hiddleston’s Dr Robert Laing moves into the newly-built tower, Ben Wheatley’s film lets reality slip away gradually – a Regency fancy dress party; a white horse clip-clopping across the roof terrace garden; a car-park full of burned out cars – before unleashing a series of surreal horrors.
The novel has one of the most arresting first sentences: “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.” Ballard writes throughout in this deceptively bland, unruffled prose – which goes some way to enhancing the deviant and sinister events that follow. Wheatley and his screenwriter, Amy Jump opt to channel the book’s baroque spirit, if not its exact letter.
Hiddleston – resembling Low-era Bowie, interestingly – makes Laing detached and indifferent, a coolly immaculate cipher for the film’s events. In contrast, Luke Evans’ Richard Wilder responds more viscerally and psychologically to the building-wide mayhem. As Anthony Royal, Jeremy Irons is at his most Jeremy Irons – inscrutable, implacable, and had High-Rise been made 30 years ago, you could imagine Irons cast as Laing. Sienna Miller, as Laing’s neighbour Charlotte Melville, is one of the few characters who seems able to navigate the twisting psychological landscape of the tower as it is engulfed in madness. There is an equally strong performance from Elisabeth Moss as Helen Wilder, trying to resist the priapic chaos that engulfs her husband. But there is a little too much grotesquery from the likes of James Purefroy and Reece Shearsmith who seem oblivious to the nuance of Ballard’s story.
Wheatley – working on his biggest project to date – does spirited work here. His High-Rise is an occult, psychedelic breakdown, pitting floor against floor, madness against madness. There are touches of Cronenberg, perhaps; but also Ken Russell and Kubrick. Portishead’s stately cover of ABBA’s “S.O.S” soundtracks a montage of freewheeling chaos. It doesn’t take much to disrupt delicate, fragile nature of society: as Wilder notes, “Living in a high rise requires a certain kind of behaviour.”
High-Rise opens in the UK in March 2016
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