The Hiddleston Man: On the Competing Masculinities of ‘High-Rise’

J.G. Ballard’s novel makes the move to film

He was constantly aware of the immense weight of concrete stacked above him, and the sense that his body was the focus of the lines of force running through the building, almost as if Anthony Royal had deliberately designed his body to be held within their grip.— J.G. Ballard, High-Rise

J.G. Ballard’s vertical-living dystopia, High-Rise is oppressively preoccupied with the body as both flesh and metaphor. Early on in the novel, which is narrated by three different male voices (that of the building’s architect, Anthony Royal; new tenant, Dr. Richard Laing; and lower-floor resident, Richard Wilder), we are given perhaps the most explicit acknowledgement of Ballard’s urban planning metaphor. Having been lured into a social gathering at one of his new neighbor’s apartments, Dr. Laing is listening intently to a description of the building “as some kind of huge animate presence.” “There was something in this feeling,” Laing informs us: “the elevators pumping up and down the long shafts resembled pistons in the chamber of a heart. The residents moving along the corridor were the cells in a network of arteries, the lights in their apartments the neurons of the brain.”

The narrative of High-Rise centers on the very disintegration of this imagined body politic. Neurons falter, arteries begin to clot, and eventually all that’s left is a thirst for destruction. The claustrophobic hierarchical structure of the building is transformed into an anarchic environment, its inhabitants giving in to their worst impulses — a Lord of the Flies of the skyscraper era. That’s where Ballard opens, exposing us, with his devilishly dark comedic wit, to the rotting body of the eponymous community at the novel’s center: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog,” the book begins, “Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

A stylish (every)man, out of time and place amidst a ravaged civilization.

Borrowing this striking and disconcerting imagery for his filmic adaptation of High-Rise, director Ben Wheatley opens with Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston) — wearing impeccably well-fitted slacks with his shirtsleeves rolled up — petting and then roasting a German Shepherd. I’m sure I was supposed to be taken aback by the barbarity of the situation, and yet I was mostly engrossed by Hiddleston’s wardrobe. Even after he’s butchered the dog (off-camera) the blood-splattered shirt remains effortlessly elegant, less a sign of his downward spiral than a suggestion that he remains in control. I couldn’t help but gawk at the actor’s lithe build, accentuated by this curious if telling costume choice — a stylish (every)man, out of time and place amidst a ravaged civilization.

Not even ten minutes later, Wheatley gives us a scene in which Laing luxuriously sunbathes in the nude on this very same balcony. We’ve been sent back in time, in order to account for the “unusual events” that had taken place three months prior. Blissfully unaware of his surroundings (as in the novel, the doctor enjoys the privacy the high-rise affords him, an imagined solitary confinement within an expansive and faceless community), Laing is startled awake by a crash. A bottle, it turns out, has been dropped from even higher above. We get what is likely to be the most GIF-ed moment from the entire film: a startled Laing hurriedly getting up, forcing the actor to hide his privates under the book that had been resting on his crotch. It’s a brief moment, underscoring Dr. Laing’s lack of privacy, but it also gives us one of the last glimpses of that clean-shaven compact body. Never again will Laing offer himself up to such scrutiny.

As the film continues, Hiddleston’s body will become inviolate, impenetrable, his suit and tie an armor that will keep him from falling into the type of lunacy that presumably afflicts his neighbors. Tellingly, his dual sex scenes — with two different neighbors who seem to find his Byronic posturing alluring, despite the chaos — show even less of the doctor than the brief moment on the balcony, in direct contrast to Richard Wilder (Luke Evans). In the book, Ballard describes Wilder as the strongest man in the building, with a “barrel-like chest” which he shows off “with some pride.” Laing, we’re told, “noticed that he was continually touching himself, for ever inspecting the hair on his massive calves, smelling the back of his scarred hands, as if he had just discovered his own body.” And while Wheatley’s film doesn’t quite push Wilder far enough (in the novel he eventually lives up to his name, shedding all his clothes, branding himself with makeshift tribal markings, devolving into an incomprehensible language) we are nevertheless encouraged to focus on his coarse and imposing body.

Luke Evans as Richard Wilder in ‘High-Rise’ (2015)

While Laing always looks like he’s just stepped off a GQ spread, Wilder is earthy and unequivocally tied to the film’s period. His bushy and messy sideburns match his unruly hair, while his denim shirt barely conceals the hirsute body that is always threatening to burst out, hinting at the simmering violent streak which eventually undoes him. Since Wheatley cuts back on the role of the architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons, playing with his signature imperiousness a character emasculated by the very community of women he’s inadvertently fostered), the film must instead rely on Wilder and Laing to give us two competing visions of contemporary masculinity.

Wheatley’s adaptation dismantles the sexist humanist language at work in the author’s rhetoric.

Considering that High-Rise eventually enshrines Laing — or rather, finds in his clean and muted aesthetic the only male role model worth letting survive — we might read it as a repudiation of Wilder’s masculine excess (“Our lives are too messy, Richard!” his wife complains), one which drives him towards senseless and barbaric violence (“He’s raping people he’s not supposed to and, to top it all off, he shat in Mercer’s attaché case,” a character yells). Laing’s charming swagger, by comparison, embodied by Internet boyfriend Hiddleston, emerges as a welcome palliative, though it also feels like an aspirational twisting of Ballard’s character.

Cover of first edition, 1975

The Laing of the book was openly ruthless in his self-survival, happy to live in incest in order to secure his sister’s apartment, a tenant in his building conspicuously absent from the film. Hiddleston’s Laing, on the other hand, is a dispassionate vision of tame masculinity. “You’re an excellent specimen,” he is told by Charlotte (Sienna Miller) when she discovers him sunbathing. The women of the high-rise eventually if implicitly anoint him de facto leader of their broken community, a new surrogate father figure for young Toby (Louis Suc), Charlotte’s son, who occupies the very last frame of the film. Looking like a curious young version of Laing — with the suit and tie to match — nerd Toby is tipped as the imagined future in Wheatley’s film world.

If the appeal of the high-rise in Ballard’s novel lay in the fact that it “was an environment built not for man, but for man’s absence,” Wheatley’s adaptation dismantles the sexist humanist language at work in the author’s rhetoric. We are left instead with a masculine body inviolate, epitomized by a hapless but cunning child and a roguish gentleman who exude non-threatening postures of masculinity, and who remain devoted and dependent on the women around them.

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