2010s, Auteurs, British cinema, Mystery, Romance

The Souvenir (2019)

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Director/Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg

By Roderick Heath

Joanna Hogg’s rise to something like eminence was a long time coming. After experimenting in photography when she left school, Hogg had a chance meeting with Derek Jarman that set her on the path to becoming a filmmaker, with the director even loaning her a camera to experiment with. Graduating from the British National Film and Television School in 1986 with the short film Caprice, starring Tilda Swinton, Hogg spent the next twenty years working in television and music videos. When the time came at last for Hogg to make her feature debut with 2008’s Unrelated, she was determined to work against the grain of every rule TV work had imposed upon her, making extensive use of improvisatory acting and telling stories based around the vague and even petty signifiers that make up much of our lives rather than programmatic melodrama. She followed it with a portrait in class tensions on holiday, Archipelago (2010), and the more recondite, allusive portrait of a couple of married artists, Exhibition (2013), a work that grabbed Martin Scorsese’s attention. Scorsese helped produce The Souvenir, a film that’s made Hogg something of the woman of the moment. The Souvenir purposefully takes on a well-worn artistic motif, casting its thoughts back to the milieu of Hogg’s creative youth in the 1980s.

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It’s the kind of story plainly charged with deep personal and autobiographical meaning, approached with the tint of unsentimental rigour middle age imbues whilst still capturing the sharp poignancy of the sorts of experiences that shock a person into full maturity and leave an indelible stamp on a creative mind. At the same time it’s a meditation upon such meditations, contending with the way such experience informs and infuses art. The Souvenir is also a study in ambiguity between people, even people who are nominally very close, the trouble with the yardsticks we’re obliged to use to understand and judge who those people are in comparison to ourselves. Hogg’s central character, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), is confronted precisely by dissatisfaction with her own identity. The daughter of wealthy parents, she has a sizeable flat in Knightsbridge and a line of credit she can wheedle out of her mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton), but she’s attending film school and wants to make a movie about how the other half live, hoping to film a project about a young boy in the poor quarter of Sunderland who idolises his mother, a studied contrast to her own frustrating relationship with class and parents. It’s the mid-1980s and Thatcherism is in full swing, and so is an IRA bombing campaign, whilst post-1960s radicalism has faded to a background hum of barbed comments about privilege and desirable addresses and aspirations to social conscience expressed through art. Julie’s apartment is a magnet for nightly soirees of young arty types who rake over their ambitions, obsessions, and personal positions with forensic determination. Amidst one of these parties, a friend brings as a guest a man she describes as her lodger: Anthony (Tom Burke), a beefy, sullen-eyed chap in a blue pinstripe suit.

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Hogg opens with Julie’s black and white photographs of the blasted environs of Sunderland she wants to chart in her proposed dream movie project, a place in stark contrast to the classiness of her family abode and the upscale vantage of her flat, which overlooks Harrods. As the polite interest of her teachers and Julie’s articulate yet unimpassioned attempts to sell the project to them makes clear, it’s an elaborate act that stickily contrasts both the unofficial doctrines of write-what-you-know-ism and the niceties of cordoned interest. It also represents an attempt by Julie to shake herself out of a bubble. Which might succeed brilliantly (and could be correlated with the breakthrough works of some of Hogg’s fellows amongst the ranks of female directors rewarded for earnestly arty accounts of mundane lives in movies like Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, 1999, and Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, 2006), but feels more like an attempt on Julie’s part to find a voice rather than something welling out of her authentic creative imagination. Irony circles Julie, as her life is something like the popular conception of Englishness as held dearly by Tories and foreigners, rooted in country house and replete with posh venues – Julie and Anthony meet to chat in a restaurant that looks like a backdrop for a Henry James tale rather than, say, a McDonalds. Julie’s film school pal, Marland (Jaygann Ayeh), improvises a wry blues ditty about aspiring to such worthy climes.

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Hogg and Burke conspire deftly in the early scenes to keep Anthony an ambiguous entity, standing or sitting with face turned away from the camera, registering as a low drawling voice and physiognomy trapped within that suit, brushing by Julie as he first enters her apartment only vaguely registered. He listens to Julie at the party, looking down upon her as she tries to articulate her immediate ambitions, but later when meets her in that restaurant they’re directly opposed in telling attitudes of appealing openness and supine coolness. Anthony quickly begins engaging her in a manner that splits the difference between patronisation and intrigued challenging, an approach that energises Julie because there isn’t anything else to prod her in such a fashion, except for the broad sniping of her film school teachers. As Anthony comes into focus, so does Julie: where scenes of Julie with her friends or her mother are filmed in handheld shots, Julie’s encounters with Anthony are offered with the precious, detail-rich framing and lighting of a Dutch master painter, as the lovers leave behind the mundane spaces of home and school and roam art galleries and ritzy Venetian hotels.

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The artistic motif finds its lynchpin as the duo roam a gallery with its perfectly composed neoclassical features and fixtures, and admire Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s picture “The Souvenir,” which depicts a decorous, long-tressed maiden fervently carving her lover’s initial into a tree after receiving a letter from him. Anthony tells Julie he works for the Foreign Office, and claims to be involved with business that relates, somehow, to the IRA campaign and other clandestine threats. Such a picture with its idealised vision of romance filtered by distance and historical mores seems a great distance from the louche mores of modern London, and yet the artwork nonetheless speaks eloquently to an affair defined by ardour in a war with distance and obscurity. Julie’s romance with Anthony unfolds in a series of spasmodic advances, shifting from random acquaintances to lovers without gradation, and Anthony could be counted as a masculine equivalent to the “girl who came to stay” John Lennon sang about. Their relationship continues in much the same way. Anthony doesn’t seem on the surface of things a particularly odd person: the son of a successful artist with roots in the northern working class, he’s become an establishment operative, Byronic instinct wrapped a self-consciously maintained Whitehall package. And yet Anthony seems to hover on the fringes not just of bohemia but society in general, contrasting the dressed-down funk of Julie’s arty pals and carefully locating common ground with Julie by airily declaring his great love for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose example he points to as a way of looking for artistic truth rather than mere realism.

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Much of the time Anthony seems to be posturing as an Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell character, the saturnine, superciliously knowing public servant who knows life and is only too happy to school his naïve and unfinished young girlfriend. But at home Anthony swans about in a floor length, brass-buttoned coat like a wannabe Dostoyevsky dissolute, and has a couple of tell-tale wounds in the crook of his elbow Julie notices one night in bed. During a dinner with Julie’s mother and father William (James Spencer Ashworth), Anthony successfully negotiates the trickiest of moment of the meet-the-parents occasion as he discusses the terrorist campaign and calmly responds to her father’s perfectly generic Tory opinion with his own position that he’s against the violence he sees being committed by both sides, but managing to seem perfectly reasonable and informed all the while. Meanwhile William recalls the staunch sectarianism of the colleges of Cambridge he attended. Julie and Anthony’s relationship becomes defined by transactions of credit, spiritual and literal. Anthony, after a polite waiting period, makes a play to claim more space in the bed with Julie. Anthony offers Julie the experience of being drawn into a larger world, of new and more complete standards of maturity, including post-graduate sexuality as he buys her lingerie, and she gives him a safe harbour.

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Eventually his most immediate and consequential secret is revealed to Julie when she and Anthony have dinner with her filmmaker friend Patrick (Richard Ayoade), who extemporises airily on shooting two features with equipment he liberated whilst nominally in film school and declaring that there are no good British musical films. Patrick then announces he can’t reconcile Julie’s apparent squareness with Anthony’s reputation as a habitual heroin user. Julie’s disquiet is plain although she officially takes it in her stride, as it hardly seems to be a great bother, even as Anthony occasionally gets her to drive him out to the boondocks to buy gear off seedy beings in backyards, claiming it’s “for work.” One day, just as she and Anthony are planning to go off on holiday to Venice at his suggestion, she finds her apartment has been ransacked and robbed. Anthony claims to have find it in such a state, but after they arrive in Venice he admits what she already suspected, that he robbed it in desperate need of funds for a fix. Julie often has to submit to the commedia dell’parents in calling up her mother to wheedle a loan out of her, usually under the guise of buying equipment, and has to ask for particularly egregious sums as she has to keep Anthony’s habit.

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Hogg thrives on the forms of tension and contradiction apparent in The Souvenir’s purview, presenting a tale of youthful folly and tragic learning from a cool and meditative middle-aged distance. What such a viewpoint loses in raw immediacy gains in being attuned to the sense of the surreal that can linger around such events, that did-that-really-happen? lustre that can light upon events remembered, as well as a more precise ledger for things gained and lost. The gaps in the movie are also the gaps in Julia’s knowledge of Anthony and herself. It’s an interpersonal, even domestic story, but nonetheless rhymed to larger phenomena. Hogg’s evocations of the ‘80s milieu extend beyond mere cosy shout-outs or wistfully recalled psychic geography. Much like the later era of Brexit, the artificial but effective allure of the Thatcherite era lay in its self-willed recourse to an array of icons and ideals of a bygone Britain utterly passé in any realistic sense but so deeply entwined with the national self-perception that it became suddenly recharged with glamour. Even the era’s pop music, with the elegantly glitzy sound of the New Romantics, declared a desire to unify the best of a self-mythologised present and an idealised past – although Julie’s social circle prefers the ganga-and-dole-cheque chic of The Specials. One of the sharper British films of the era, Richard Eyre’s The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983), named itself after an advertising creation posing as ye olde repast.

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British cinema, still picking itself up after the collapse of the early 1970s, also underwent a split in this period that still lingers, despite some attempts to bash down the divide, between a polished and classy, internationally popular mode of period dramas, and gritty and provocative realism, ironically banished to the art houses. Anthony, in his way, is the living incarnation of such a spirit, with his retro affectations and love for studied, bygone art, his continental jaunts and mumbled reports of guarding against skulduggery, albeit with the other foot planted in a raw and squalid reality, and even seems draw some charge from such disreputable disparities, whilst claiming to be a foot soldier in the official war against existential threats. Meanwhile Julie struggles to invent a form of aesthetic that can comprehend such schismatic ways of seeing. The film’s most crucial yet cryptic entwining of personal and public myth comes when Julie finds Anthony has left hand-made paper arrows trailing through her flat, leading up to a windowsill where he seems to have left a present only for the thud of a bomb blast to shake the apartment – Harrods down the road has been attacked by the IRA. Such a coincidence could be a spasm of Jungian synchronicity, but given Anthony’s sometimes confused references to his work and his generally screwed-up attitude it doesn’t feel entirely impossible he didn’t know about the bombing through the jungle drums of covert intelligence or was even involved in the bombing through some kind of false-flag operation and wanted Julie to know it.

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At the same time it’s just as possible Anthony’s just a professional bullshit artist, an intellectual kibitzer whose creative/destructive impulses turned inwards and arrested in form through drug use and siding with power. Hogg doesn’t make too much of this – it’s just one of those strange and bewildering moments life can throw up given a special flash of rare meaning, charged with an addict’s sense of paranoid connection. What’s more immediately alarming is the strange, tattooed, incoherent lowlife Julie finds in the flat when she returns to it, some connection of Anthony’s who might as well be a horror movie mutant suddenly erupting into Julie’s world: Julie freaks out and bundles him out as quickly as possible. Like many young creative people Julie gets bent far off course for a time by the sheer pleasure of a consuming romance, to the point where the solicitous Marland asks here where she’s been after her ardent and fixated early days at the film school. But she’s also becoming an artist through the perverse and ungovernable processes of life: the lectures on how to use a moviola or the function of editing in Psycho (1960) give way to the efforts of Julie and her fellows, including Marland and denim-skirted, piercing eyed Garance (Ariane Labed), to shoot their student film projects.

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Anthony’s encouraging Julie to look beyond mere fashionable or reflexive realism is ironically realised through the texture of The Souvenir itself, utilising a smart tension between her often jarring edits and the deadpan gaze of her camera to open up zones of ambiguity even when what’s being shot seems perfectly straightforward, and Hogg dramatizes the head-versus-heart split at the centre of the tale as a dialectic of values. The artwork that gives the film its title encapsulates an entirely bygone romantic sensibility that nonetheless still captures something of the obsessive fire of love. Hogg’s previous films viewed haute bourgeois mores and blind spots through the register of suggestion through environment, a la Michelangelo Antonioni, with an added gloss of real estate porn: character inextricable from location, obsessions with domain and property giving form to people rather than the other way around, as in Exhibition which described the lives of artists trying to sell their home and cope with the aftershocks of an unstated crisis in the recent past. Julie’s apartment has a similar potency, gifting her influence and notoriety, independence and authority, even if she doesn’t quite understand what to do with it all.

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It’s quickly become a cliché to describe Hogg as a social realist filmmaker albeit with a different perspective to the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. Certainly The Souvenir registers minute vibrations of class and financial disparity, but it also studies the way personality operates lawlessly in such terms. Lebed’s presence bolsters the feeling of affinity with Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2011), which, whilst quite distinct in its method, nonetheless similarly winnowed its portrait of awkward maturation down to a crux of tragic loss. Hogg occasionally interpolates fixed and ruminative shots of country landscapes whilst Julie reads Anthony’s letters with their stark and surprisingly ardent phrasings. This touch reminded me of Francois Truffaut’s shots of his letter writers reading their words direct to the camera in Two English Girls (1971), if with an inverted affect. The fire of personal communication is swapped for a cool longing for immersion in the calm reaches of pre-Romantic pastoral art with all its intimations of natural harmonies and sublime accords, but the same result in transmuting the staidness of the written word into a potent cinematic device.

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Common oppositions – new and old, aristocratic and plebeian, classical and modernist, establishment and revolutionary, man and woman, parent and child – all are invoked at some point, their limits tested, their mutant offspring called art. Julie and Anthony are lovers but their relationship comes to ironically mimic her mother-son project, Julie’s attempts to care for her lover laced with distinct maternal aspects. Real intimacy seems most possible – perhaps only possible – when Andrew makes Julie complicit in his habit, an admission that should start alarm bells ringing for Julie and yet which also offers the pleasure of feeling at once maternal and childlike before such inchoate need. The siren call of bohemian pleasures offers the possibility of maintaining some hot line into an authentic if dangerous mode of life experienced like a secret theatre within the package of bourgeois solidity. Hogg constantly envisions Anthony and Julie in separate spaces within her frames, usually in some disparity of business – Anthony cooking whilst Julie cleans, or the like, or talking over a table – in a way that nonetheless informs us of the way they contend as beings and inhabit space without quite meeting in it.

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Even in bed they have what Anthony wryly refers to, a la It Happened One Night (1934), as the Walls of Jericho between them, taking the form of the stuffed toy lion that betrays Julie’s uncertain level of maturity. This portrait of schism is also, more sarcastically invoked as Hogg portrays Julie and her film school fellows listening to a lecturer, the teacher at the centre of the frame, Julie and Garance on the right, and the male students crowded into the left. This sense of distinction is paired off with the use of mirrors, festooning the walls of Julie’s house, offering up alternate selves, alternate universes: the first time to pair are seen speaking is in reflection. The crucial scene where Julie is made aware by Patrick of Anthony’s habit sees Julie framed alone with Patrick and his girlfriend in reflection behind her, with Anthony then taking his place, intruding into the shot and completely transformed by Julie’s new awareness. Later, after Anthony’s been through an agonising attempt to kick his habit cold turkey in the apartment with Julie watching over him, a mirror panel on the wall glimpsed behind William’s head is seen to be punched in, echoing a key vignette in The Red Shoes (1948) and silently declaring the shattering of illusion. The most purely romantic moment in the film sees the couple dancing with their reflections granted equal space in the frame, the real and the illusory given perfect momentary balance and truth.

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These twinned motifs finally converge when the couple arrive in Venice and are installed in a beautifully decorated hotel room within which Julie and Anthony rove uneasily. Amidst the plush décor of the space a mirror contains both lovers as Anthony kisses her on the head, their little, crowded corner of baroque emotion in the midst of the ages’ splendour as purveyed in the shuffle of commercial tourism. It’s small wonder Hogg references Powell and Pressburger, however dubious a mouth she puts the admission in, as The Souvenir reveals itself as one of the great British tradition of romanticism lurking under a restrained surface in a way the filmmakers captured, and glimpsed only rarely in such other odd places as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) and Brief Encounter (1945), and Hogg casually nails the sensibility Paul Thomas Anderson spent the entirety of Phantom Thread (2017) labouring to nail down. After their fusion in the hotel room, Julie is transformed into a la The Red Shoes’ heroine as she follows Anthony in a ball gown through the winding streets of Venice, heading off to the opera: they have finally entered a magical land, delivered from the meanness of the present and become the flesh of their dream-selves. Back in their hotel room Anthony fucks Julie in garter belt and stockings, a capstone of intense yet dreamy sexuality befitting the haute couture cosplaying and Julie’s sense of arriving in amidst the fleshpot delights and filthy fantasias of true adulthood.

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Return to London however sees reality impinging ever more urgently until Anthony is arrested and, after she bails him out, Julie confronted by a different array of paraphernalia, Anthony’s junkie kit, and she orders him to get out. Julie sets about getting herself back on track, plunging back into work and brushing aside admonitions from her teachers and picking up one-night-stands with a new ease, filled with erotic glee mixed with a detectable self-satisfaction as she watches a hot young lover strip down before her. But when she reconnects with Anthony their gravitational pull is still strong. Anthony puts himself through the hell of withdrawal for Julie’s sake, and the ordeal seems worth it as Anthony emerges wan and shellshocked-looking but apparently clean and calm, to the point where he’s again dining with Julie and her parents to celebrate her birthday. But Julie’s immersion back in creativity, which sees her staying up to work on a project, seems to open up a void again for Anthony. Julie’s relationship with her mother is eventually revealed to be more than just one of indulgent parasitism as Rosalind voices hopes to Julie and Anthony about trying to go back to school, and she stays with her daughter one night when Anthony doesn’t return from a jaunt about town.

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Casting the real-life mother-daughter duo of Swinton and Swinton Byrne not only gives the film a smart charge of immediacy in their interactions but also, given Hogg’s creative history with Swinton, lets them take on an aspect of a split sense of self, generational drafts with all their varying levels of hope and experience, knowing and becoming. Family has other forms and potentials, too: Hogg films Julie travelling with her pals and collaborators late in the film in a van, united in their voices and enthusiasms, and the film crew becomes a different form of enveloping and delivering family, a collective act of arbitrating vision and ability rather than subjective and egotistical submersion. Their project comes to resemble something Jarman might have shot, a tip of the nod to the mentor and a depiction of the growing aesthetic courage and independence of the young students. When Anthony fails to return home Julie and her mother wait up and finally Julie pins a note to the building’s front door telling him not to worry about waking her.

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The sight of Julie’s unread note flapping unread on the door is one of the most forlorn sights in cinema, and her mother soon gets a phone call confirming the dread inevitable: Anthony’s been found dead of an overdose, consumed by his incapacity to sustain himself in the endlessly drawn-out tension of the immediate moment, which Julie can escape through creative and intellectual submersion. The loss is terrible and transfigures Julie, but it’s also another fantastic cessation, the vanishing of one aspect of her life as others crowd in, filmmaking no longer just an ambition but an authentic necessity. Hogg’s last shot is totemic, as Julie stands in the doorway of a sound stage, gazing from the threshold out at the countryside beyond, caught between the real and the created, the wild and the safe, ready to turn it all to good use in art, but also cursed with the incapacity to choose in which realm she stands. Hogg hides a brilliant sting at the very end of the credits, promising The Souvenir II, coming soon. The franchising of the art film, a new frontier for cinephiles.

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2010s, British cinema, Drama, Scifi

High-Rise (2015)

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Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenwriters: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley

By Roderick Heath

Ben Wheatley debuted as a director with 2009’s Down Terrace and leapt to the forefront of British filmmaking talents with his second work, the gruesome, tantalisingly semi-abstract horror film Kill List (2011). Since then Wheatley, working in close collaboration with wife Amy Jump, who cowrites and edits his films, made the blackly humorous Sightseers (2013) and the psychedelic period film A Field in England (2014). Part of the potency the duo’s collaborations have mustered wells from the blend of Wheatley’s filmmaking savvy, achieving beguiling gloss and texture with stringent budgets and strong but near-unknown casts, and creative eagerness to smack apposite ideas and styles together. Wheatley and Jump marry the disorientating and enigmatic effects of arthouse cinema to down-and-dirty genre aesthetics, conjure farce and savagery as entwined serpents, and harbour an evident yearning to reinvigorate touchstones from diverse heydays of British cinema. Sightseers, for instance, managed to pitch itself somewhere between Ealing comedy and the eerie stylings of ’60s and ’70s folk-horror films, whilst A Field in England, though never quite coalescing as successfully as its two predecessors, also represented a leap in ambition as Wheatley and Jump explored the familiar theme of the shock of the new, but in the context of the past. High-Rise sees the filmmaking duo moving into new territory in adapting a highly regarded novel penned by J.G. Ballard in 1975 and working with a much more prestigious cast and budget. Still, the material demands that the duo’s edgy, fearless streak be left undiluted.
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Ballard, a writer who, like Kurt Vonnegut, transcended his niche in popularity as a science fiction writer to become regarded as one of the most impishly acerbic imaginations of his time, spent part of his youth in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. He later transmuted that desperate experience into his famous novel Empire of the Sun, filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1987. Ballard’s adult viewpoint on the world, one that emerged with increasing ferocity, perversity, and cyanide wit in his writing, was understandably inflected by the grim lessons of his war experience, the spectacle of human civilisation suddenly ceasing to work in the coherent, systematic, antiseptic manner that defines modernity. Ballard’s scifi writing took on an increasing tint of brute parable as he offered mordant dissection of social systems and the underlying assumptions of human behaviour that sustain them. High-Rise levelled Ballard’s cold and unsparing sensibility on one of modernism’s temples, the high-rise apartment building, and the attendant commercialism of the boutique lifestyle mythos. The story, although nominally realistic and contemporary to when Ballard wrote it, edges quickly into a Swiftian portrait of what happens as systems break down and primeval behavioural patterns begin to assert themselves.
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A few years ago I happened to catch on TV a British semi-documentary film from 1946, The Way We Live, detailed the rebuilding of Plymouth, rejoicing in the promise of apartment blocks as the way of the future for affordable housing. It was both a fascinating and perturbing experience to watch from a half-century’s distance, considering that life in such blocks would eventually become synonymous with slums and social dysfunction in many British towns (and far beyond), as large numbers of poor people were crammed into drab, self-cordoning zones — although now high-rise solutions to space and environment problems in cities are again becoming an trendy notion. Ballard’s target was larger than just architectural cul-de-sacs and the social engineering they’re supposed to enable, though, as his high-rise structure becomes a metaphor for the entire apparatus of human civilisation, with a grand architect named Royal and the floors of the building literalising social caste in terms of floors. Wheatley and Jump, in adapting the novel, made the choice to keep the story set in the 1970s, an idea with perhaps inevitable appeal for the duo with their fetish for retro tropes and styles, but one which also risks stripping the tale of its immediacy and still-pungent relevance, especially considering that with Kill List, Wheatley had revealed a gift for digging into a raw nerve of anxiety and portrayed the blindsiding quality of the late ’00s economic tsunami and the bitter aftertaste of the decade’s geopolitical adventuring better than most any other filmmaker.
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High-Rise also keeps intact the flashback structure of Ballard’s novel, which commences with the instantly galvanising image of focal character Robert Laing eating a dog, and works backwards to explain how he came to this moment. Tom Hiddleston takes on the part of Laing, glimpsed at the outset exploring the mysteriously ruined, fetid, broken-down environs of his home, where strange men and dead bodies sit around apparently unnoticed, and the aforementioned act of cooking and eating a wandering dog is scarcely worth a blink. A title card announces a jump back three months to the days when Laing first moved into his new apartment building, the first completed tower in a five block project designed by genius architect and entrepreneur Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Royal’s declared hope for the building is to create a civic crucible that would break down class and other social barriers and forge a self-sufficient community, complete with supermarket and swimming pool, and he’s attracted a great swathe of tenants through the fashionable swank and visionary allure of his construction.
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As he settles into life in building, Laing learns that the opposite situation to the one Royal hoped for is rapidly evolving, with a rigid hierarchy built on floor levels. Lower floors are filled with middle-class wannabes whilst toffs and celebrities congregate in the higher. Laing, a pathologist at a teaching hospital, hovers somewhere in between, but he captures the interest of many of his new neighbours, including the much-chased single mother and socialite a floor above, Charlotte (Sienna Miller), and Royal himself, with his tenancy application, which inadvertently portrayed him as a Byronic intellectual. Laing seems to partly fit the bill as a loner, tightly-wrapped, both physically and psychologically. He’s recently been left quietly bereft, but also subtly armoured, by the death of his sister.
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Laing draws Charlotte’s further interest when she catches sight of him sunbaking naked on his apartment terrace. She invites him for a session of fine dining and rutting in her apartment, which is interrupted by her young, bespectacled, hyperintelligent son Toby (Louis Suc). Charlotte’s also being pursued by another resident, Wilder (Luke Evans), a virile, fervent, working-class man who’s climbed a few social rungs through his work as a TV filmmaker. He lives on a lower floor with his wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and their kids. Laing encounters other neighbours around the building, a gallery of variously fussy, pushy, eccentric types, including wealthy, famous, but desperately lonely and fraying actress Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory), and supermarket checkout chick Fay (Stacy Martin), who starts teaching herself French from a phrasebook Laing buys but leaves behind.
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Laing is invited to meet Royal by Cosgrove (Peter Ferdinando), his gatekeeper, and is bewildered by the rooftop garden, complete with thatched cottage, that crowns the building, Royal’s concession to his wife Ann (Keeley Hawes), progeny of a great country house and the patrician mindset thereof. Royal, who limps from an injury he sustained during the building’s construction, needs exercise to keep limber: he asks Laing to be his squash partner and also offhandedly invites him to a party his wife is giving. When he arrives at the party, Laing is embarrassed to find everyone else is in fancy dress (as pre-Revolution French aristocrats, complete with chamber orchestra scratching out a version of ABBA’s “SOS”) whilst he’s in a black suit, and worse, he’s outed as a man who doesn’t understand the vicissitudes of the sphere he has entered. Cosgrove, the hard fist attached to this body politic, tosses him out after a brief window of courtesy, and Laing is forced to spend the night in the elevator when it breaks down. Royal is apologetic over both the humiliation and the breakdown, but he infuriates Laing with unchivalrous remarks about Charlotte.
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The elevator breakdown proves, moreover, to be an early sign of the faults Royal dismisses as teething problems, but which soon turn out to be endemic. As the infrastructure of the building breaks down so does the nerve, tolerance, and finally the humanity of its populace. “On the whole, life in the high-rise was good,” the narrator’s voiceover (also Hiddleston) proclaims late in the film, directly quoting Ballard’s text: “There had been no obvious point when it had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension.” Part of the essence of High-Rise’s thesis is precisely the idea that perhaps there is no great divide between the petty evils (and ecstasies) of human society and the potential for total descent into what some would call anarchy; indeed, another of High-Rise’s themes is that anarchy is another kind of order. High-Rise eventually moves into overt parable, even surreal territory, reminiscent of the music room no one can leave in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), as life in Royal’s building begins to decay and everyone, instead of reaching beyond it, becomes determined to win their various battles within it, sensing, as the very end signals, that they might at least gain the advantage of being used to it before everyone else has to do the same. It’s also a variation on an eternal theme of postwar British artists, particularly satirists and comedians: the thorny and often insufferable business of living with other people, an inevitable psychological by-product of life on a small island where politeness is not just a pleasantry, but an actual survival skill.
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Great swathes of modern science fiction writing have never really had their day on screen, and the best writers of Ballard’s era, including Michael Moorcock, Harry Harrison, Robert Silverberg, and Harlan Ellison, conjured gritty, dingy, sexy, acerbic tales that threw off the adamantine postures of earlier genre writing and embraced a cynical and dissident attitude even before the cyberpunk age arrived. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) was one of the few authentic filmings of that style in its own era; Robert Fuest’s take on Moorcock’s The Final Programme (1974) was another. Wheatley’s work here recalls Fuest’s film particularly, evoking devolution as haute couture phenomenon. Wheatley’s decision to make High-Rise in period proves quickly to have been a master stroke, in part because it accords with the material’s wilful rejection of restraint in its metaphors, turning Ballard’s tale into a kind of disco allegory slightly out of time, like Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968). The first half, however, plays mostly like a ’70s sex farce with the underlying note of absurdist dread only registering as the faintest buzz, as Laing negotiates life in the tower and contemplates the uncommon (that is, utterly common) mores of his fellow inhabitants, from Charlotte’s nonchalant approach to sexuality (after they’ve been interrupted shagging by Toby, Charlotte lights a cigarette; Laing asks confusedly, “I thought we were doing this,” to her reply, “We’ve done it.”) to Helen’s broody, frustrated angst, expiated in dreams of moving to a higher floor and watching TV dramas set in the romantic past, and Wilder’s tiger-in-a-cage unease in his environment. Meanwhile the upper classes and their lackeys barely bother concealing their vicious defensiveness, setting the stage for a partial inversion of the world H.G. Wells envisioned in his The Time Machine where the workers would evolve into cannibalistic Morlocks and the bourgeois into effete Eloi: in this vision, the upper classes remain so precisely because of their cold-blooded determination to hold onto privileges, a lack of sentimentality that could be called monstrous or some kind of evolutionary advantage.
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Laing, after his ejection from Ann Royal’s party, takes out his anger with quiet precision on one of her other guests and a fellow tenant, the foppish Munrow (Augustus Prew), who’s also one of his pupils at the hospital. Munrow faints during Laing’s instructive dissection of a human head, and though his medical scans come back showing he’s fine, Laing plays a blackhearted practical joke on him by suggesting the scans suggest he might be ill. Shortly after, Munrow throws himself off a balcony to his death. Laing’s mean joke gone wrong proves to be a psychic declaration of war that soon starts to consume the building, where minor faults and breakdowns evolve into systemic failure of power and supply.
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Wilder starts a more overt insurrection with a catalyst moment that begins as literal child’s play: Wilder, edgy and itching for conflict during a birthday party for one of his kids, leads the child guests in a raiding party on the swimming pool, which has been cordoned off and claimed for a toff’s wine party. After one of the higher-floor tenants, a newsreader who works for the same TV station, promises to get him blackballed, Wilder releases his anger by purposely drowning Jane’s dog. The pool crashing coincides with a power outage, with the lower-floor residents respond to with a sprawling impromptu party, during which Wilder snorts cocaine and, confronted by Cosgrove, beats the enforcer to a pulp. Wilder certainly has all the potency and force required to lead the lower-floor faction, as social sniping becomes active warfare, but does he have the sense of a cause and the wisdom? His first instinct is stick to his job, endeavouring to make a documentary on life in the tower block even as everything goes to hell, whilst Laing’s instinct is to retreat into his intense, self-composed bubble and wait out the various storms breaking upon his door. But this proves impossible as the block spirals into chaos during the continued blackout, and supplies start to run low. A cabal of upper-floor types led by Pangbourne (James Purefoy), with Ann Royal as patron, begin to create plans to take on the lower floors and throw an even better party, a plan that shades into full-on raiding and pillaging as looting breaks out in the supermarket and it becomes clear survival and prosperity in the building is starting to become a matter of raw force and dominance.
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High-Rise, in spite of its nominal period setting, has the genes of dystopian science fiction, portraying a microcosmic society in breakdown and connecting that breakdown to the processes of the human mind itself. Laing compares Royal’s building plans to a human hand—the multiple towers are shaped like the curling fingers closing around the great central car park that, in spite of being wide open, is actually labyrinthine in its confusion—a brain and nervous system, and then finally, a heart. The idea of place becoming a mimetic map of psychological function is an old one in scifi, suggested in Metropolis (1926), and here employed with a hint that it’s an illustration of a war between functional utilitarianism, implied by the resemblance to the hand, the often illogical and mysterious twists of the mind that controls it, and the force of the heart that keeps beating through all. Laing’s name suggests a reference to the influential Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who helped develop a theory that the madness that follows attacks of schizophrenia is the cathartic result of the brain receiving contradictory messages—a notion that describes High-Rise’s narrative and Wheatley’s treatment of it as a whole with great accuracy. As the situation in the tower block worsens, Wheatley’s tone straddles the zones of horror movie consummation and screwball comedy, seeing both the repulsive and hilarious aspects of people acting on their worst impulses as their civilisation declines from consumerist paradise to galvanised class structure to tribal commune.
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Futuristic tales of dystopian societies and struggles against coercion have been infiltrating popular cinema of late, with films like The Hunger Games series, Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer (2013), and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and the structural conceit of Snowpiercer’s social metaphor suggests the immediate influence of Ballard’s tale. Wheatley’s take on that tale feels, however accidentally, like a riposte to the supposedly dark, but actually simplistic, reassuring heroic fantasies in those films. High-Rise posits Wilder as a possible hero figure, a would-be revolutionary who wears both his class resentment and his masculine force on his sleeve, but he’s led astray in the course of the film by the very violent impulses he can’t control and by sexual egotism that finally manifests in the ugliest way when he learns that Charlotte, who has rejected him, has been Royal’s mistress and that Toby is the architect’s son: Wilder’s response is to break into Charlotte’s flat, rape and beat her bloody, and then make her feed him in a gruesome caricature of normality, with the punch line that Charlotte feeds him dog food, one of the few foodstuffs left in the building. Wilder chows down with straightforward acceptance of a new reality, apparent in some of the building’s other inhabitants. Meanwhile, Helen finds her own succour getting rogered by Laing over the unused stovetop in his apartment, a space he tries in vain to decorate and inhabit; his belongings remain unpacked, with smears of neutral blue-grey paint the same hue as the colour of the sky outside on his walls in his attempt to fashion himself a free-floating life. It’s not until he actually has to fight for ownership of a can of paint in the supermarket-turned-war-zone that he actually proves he wants anything. Wilder eventually half-compliments, half-condemns Laing for his self-possession, the kind of apparently bland, quiet rigour that can actually weather the storm that’s breaking about their ears.
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Moving slightly askew from Ballard’s obsessive theme of the distorting quality of technology and its pernicious penetration of the way humans relate to it and each other, Wheatley and Jump’s interest is more compelled by social ritual — its apparent arbitrariness, the very real forces it sometimes conceals and otherwise channels — and also by the rules of power as evinced in the seeming neutral zone of modern life. Sightseers portrayed its mousy social outcasts finding self-realisation in murder, whilst Kill List depicted a returned Iraq War veteran who engaged in killing for hire to support his lifestyle, only to find the bill arriving in the cruellest fashion possible. A Field in England depicted the temptations of control and submission with suggestive political ramifications: some people certainly do want to lord it over others, but is their ability to do so sometimes facilitated by the desire of others to let them, as a release from certain pressures and anxieties of existence? Wilder’s forced ritual of making Charlotte pose as dutiful wife echoes the scene in A Field in England where the necromancer took his enemy prisoner, tortured him, and then forced him to wear a sickly smile whilst leading him like a dog on a leash. Wilder eventually harbours an ambition to climb to the higher levels and confront the god-king Royal, to tear him down or displace him, only to fail to recognise Royal when the two men meet in the supermarket after the architect descends to the lower levels in his attempts to fathom the failure of his creation and the people in it. Royal himself tries to count himself out of the chaos, but is drawn however reluctantly into the upper-floor cabal out of sheer parochial loyalty, as his anointed class’s parties devolve into raw, explosive orgies fuelled with captured riches. Royal finds himself nominated as tribal chieftain, for all his flummoxed cynicism.
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Around the travails of the main characters, Wheatley offers a sprawling landscape of strangeness, offering perversely ebullient filmmaking as he charts the decline of the building from chintzy classiness to stygian pit, alternating effects of dreamy fantasia and cokey Scorsesean montages, matched to Kubrick’s ironic classical music cues, whilst visions of Sadean revelry flit by. Ann Royal is forced to run on a supermarket conveyor like a treadmill when she’s caught by a gang of vengeful spivs led by Fay; Jane rides amidst the snobs’ orgy on horseback as a porn-queen take on Lady Godiva before dismounting and asking “which one of you bastards is going to fuck me up the arse?” A team of upper-floor raiders led by Pangbourne adopt tracksuits as a uniform and march into the supermarket happy to crack skulls. Wheatley and Jump’s propulsive editing style maintains the free-flowing, anecdotal quality of Ballard’s writing, vignettes of a descent into hell—or heaven, as so many seem ebullient and released in their surrender to completely carnal realities, including Royal and his wife, who shift from mutual contempt to strange loving using Jane as sexual surrogate, the two women holding hands plaintively whilst Royal works away. As the dissolution of the building reaches it last stages, its atomises into camps—women gathered in communal suckling circles, orgiastic sprawls that would make Sardanapulus blush, the swimming pool turned at first into a miniature Ganges where people wash clothes and then a concrete Styx littered with corpses.
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Laing eventually finds himself threatened with top-floor defenestration when he refuses the request of Cosgrove, Pangbourne, and others in the upper echelon to lobotomise Wilder; he is saved only by Royal’s intervention. Wilder himself, given a gun by the Royals’ much-abused housekeeper and after Helen has been snatched as a hostage and put to work as a servant, climbs up through the building’s ventilator system, determined to confront Royal, only to stir the wrath of the women who form a kind of gestalt, a band of neo-Bacchantes who respond with lethal group wrath when their priest-king is threatened. Perhaps the most subversive idea in High-Rise is not that there’s a monster lurking under everyone’s skin, but that people are the same in just about any situation, just to greater or lesser degrees, and that after a time, perhaps it’s less our individuality than our shared reflexes that allow us to survive and create worlds together. Wheatley and Jump finally locate weird visions of happiness in disintegration amidst the horror and find a moment to note humanity even in the worst and the creation of new binaries and social zones, climaxing in beguiling moments, like Pangbourne coaching Helen through her labour pains and the final survey of Laing, calm and fulfilled with a harem of wives and a shank of dog leg on his spit.
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If there’s a major flaw to High-Rise, it’s that it paints, but doesn’t entirely analyse the social processes Ballard’s satire was evoking. It backs off from some of the novel’s blackest resolutions, preferring to illustrate instead in a continuum of free-form absurdism. I have the feeling a lot of material finished up in the cutting room floor. But the blackout, sketch-like structure is to a certain extent the strength of High-Rise, kicking off the strictures of narrative nicety and, as the narration says of the building populace by the end, surrendering “to a logic more powerful than reason.” Here is the suggestion its characters reach a logical psychic end point akin to survivors of Leningrad’s siege or the bombing of Dresden, continuing with the business of keeping on. Only the very end brings in a genuinely false note, as a speech by Margaret Thatcher about capitalism is heard wafting on the airwaves: this moment serves less to make a solid connection between the late ’70s rejection of grubby authenticity for neoliberal chic and the sharp edge of social Darwinism than confirming just how much their impotence before the Iron Lady and her creed still haunts the British intelligentsia. High-Rise is certainly strong meat, perhaps too strong for many, in spite of its playful flourishes. But for the most part Wheatley and Jump have made their own work, the kind cinema too rarely offers these days—audacious, dynamic, and superbly crafted.

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