Politics, Class and British Cinema:
An Examination of British Class through Politics in High-Rise and Brazil
The end of the 20th century was a defining time in British history, as the shifting cultural and political environments in Britain created a nation dominated by tensions between the social classes. The disparity between the classes, caused by the radically shifting politics from Harold Wilson’s 1974 Labour government to Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 Conservative government, became the focal point for many works of art that emphasized the increasing separation within the population. Two of those works, Ben Wheatley’s 2015 adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise and Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil, are rich in social commentary exploring how these two contrasting political eras impacted the social class system in Britain. Through the visualization of the characters homes, Wheatley and Gilliam explore how these different political ideologies influenced the representation of class in Britain.
Following the 1974 general election, the Labour party, under the leadership of Harold Wilson, formed a government, despite the narrow election results. Wilson’s government, which focused on social reconstruction, sought to increase economic and social security for the British working class through social welfare programs. The Labour government promoted a future where all classes and families had the opportunity to advance socially and financially (Mares 259). While providing support and security for the working class, this government challenged the wealthy classes position in society. They made the elites fearful that, as the working class gained social mobility, their uncontested power would be lost. The Labour government came to represent the possibility of a brighter future for the lower classes and a darker future for the upper elites.
In the film adaptation of High-Rise, the disparity between the classes plays a major role in the conflict between the characters. Wheatley visually symbolizes the complex class relations through the high-rise building: he juxtaposes the lower floor apartments, inhabited by working class families like the Wilder’s, with the penthouse apartment owned by the building’s architect, Royal, to conceptualize the inequalities between the classes. As the tensions between the floors begin to surmount, Wheatley shows how the desire of the working class to move up the social ladder and the fear of the upper class losing their dominance in the social hierarchy turns the entire system into anarchy, destroying not just the apartments but also the entire social system.
The Wilder family lives in an undisclosed basement apartment that is dark, lonely, and isolated; Helen, Wilder’s wife, describes their living situation as “down in the bottom, in all sorts of shadows” (High-Rise). The apartment, which is crowded and small, overcome with garish children and childish men, and comprised of tattered possessions and broken amenities, becomes the physical manifestation of their lack of privilege, money, and dignity in this social system, prompting their desire to move out of the “shadows” and up to a more livable level. To contrast, the penthouse apartment, owned by the wealthy and prestigious Royal, emulates a utopia. The perfectly pristine interior and bright naturalistic lighting contrasts sharply with the Wilder’s basement apartment, creating a clear distinction between the two living areas. Moreover, the apartment’s spacious living rooms are populated with working class servants, and the lush rooftop garden — reminiscent of the Garden of Eden — houses a mixture of animals and plants. Life at the top of the high-rise is Biblical, providing the elites, who hold a God-like authority over the other tenants, with the perfect living conditions compared to the claustrophobic and deteriorating apartments on the lower floors.
The tensions between the classes caused by the inequalities in living conditions, most notably the failures in the building's amenities, come to a forefront resulting in a literal class war. As the bottom floors, led by Wilder, begin to uprise against the hierarchy, the penthouse apartment falls into disrepair, mimicking the deterioration of the dominance of the elites over the poor. The once civilized utopic apartment becomes a site of orgies and tortures and is filled with trash and bodily fluids. Additionally, the starving inhabitants feast on Royal’s collection of animals, symbolizing the loss of his God-like power as his beloved pets become the source of nourishment for the revolution.
As Wilder and the other bottom floor inhabitants breakthrough the ceilings to the upper floors, the elites greatest fear is actualized as their privilege and prestige are overthrown. In Royal’s final reflection on his utopic building, he remarks to Laing that the failures of the building have resulted in the lower classes breaking free of their social confinement: “You recall us speaking about my hopes for the building to be a crucible for change? Well, all this has made me realize something quite fundamental. It wasn’t that I left an element out, it was that I put too many in. And now the building's failure has offered those people the beginnings of a means of escape to a new life” (High-Rise). Wheatley’s dark narrative illustrates how Labour’s visionary attempt to create a government in support of the masses rather than the minority elites caused a disruption in the social hierarchy by providing the lower classes with the ability to overthrow the elites. The building, like the government, posed as a “crucible for change,” sought to devolve social power to a more equal basis.
In the end, the elites are rooted out of the high-rise building leaving behind a classless dystopia, plagued with insanity, violence, and destruction. This new classless and lawless world is unkempt and unruly, representing a primordial Britain. Yet, Wheatley’s finale insinuates that perhaps the class system needs to be in place to maintain law and order in society. Wheatley overlays the final moments of the film with a radio broadcast of then opposition leader Margaret Thatcher, foreshadowing that, in fact, the social structures will be restored, as the turning point in British politics shifts from the sensitive policies of the Labour party to the capitalistic domination of Thatcherism.
During the 1979 general election, the “Winter of Discontent,” which plagued Britain with a failing economy, copious labor strikes, and political stiffs, forced the Labour party out of power and made way for Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government. Thatcher’s government reigned in a new era of British politics that did away with Labour’s subsidized welfare state and ushered in a regime that prioritized economic advancement by marginalizing the lower classes. Thatcher’s main policies included privatizing of many national businesses, centralizing power to the national government, and, most importantly, diminishing labor unions powers by maintaining a flexible labor market (Guay 88). These changes resulted in the reinstatement of the wealthy citizen's dominance in politics and business while working class citizens face extreme hardships and political isolation. Many have related Thatcher’s extreme politics to authoritarian rule, making the government impenetrable and the upper class immovable. Consequently, the working class suffered severely under Thatcher’s regime, which revoked many of the working classes’ rights established under the Labour government. Thatcher and the Conservatives established a new system of rule that, rather than encouraging the working classes' success, lead to it's demise.
Taking inspiration from Thatcher’s oligarchical Britain, Terry Gilliam crafted the world of Brazil, which sees the upper class unfazed by the deteriorating dystopia around them. Like Wheatley, Gilliam visualizes the social discourse of this new era in British politics through the characters homes, where the lower classes live in the bleak shadows while the upper class lives in opulence. Yet unlike High-Rise, where the destruction of the elite’s penthouse apartment symbolizes the shifting political landscape to favor the working class over the wealthy, Brazil uses the destruction of the working class family’s home to symbolize the shift back towards an elitist government.
Gilliam introduces the Buttle’s, a working class family, and their home during the opening of the film. Their family home is modest — its monotone color scheme and tight spacing contrasts with the grand interiors and full colors of the homes of the film’s richer characters. The tattered, second-hand furniture, dated decor, and overhanging ducts illustrate the family’s lack of monetary wealth. But the crafty Christmas decorations, warm lighting, and joyous family gathering shows their wealth in family value. Yet, the family’s modest life is turned into poverty when this world’s pitiless government strips them of their physical security and familial bond. The Ministry of Information swarms the Buttle’s home, breaking through their windows, knocking down their door, and drilling a hole in their ceiling, before unjustly imprisoning, and later murdering, Mr. Buttle due to a misprinted document. The government not only destroys the family’s home but also destroys their family unit, leaving the remainder of the family completely impoverished. The government leaves the distressed Mrs. Buttle and her sobbing children to repair their house and their lives all on their own, with no support or sympathy from the elitist government. By the time Sam arrives at the Buttle’s home later in the film, it’s comforting and familiar glow has been replaced with a dark, decrepit, and deteriorating atmosphere; the flicker of joy from this working class family has been extinguished by this unsympathetic regime.
Conversely, Ida, who represents the upper elites, lives in an opulent and lavish home, funded by her Ministry boyfriend. Unlike the Buttle’s, her home is grand, colorful, clean, and finely furnished. The many plants and flowers bring a naturalist life to her home that isn’t seen in the Buttle’s gray and cold home. Her bedroom, with its all-white furnishings and magical atmosphere, brings a heavenly allusion to her living space, much like Royal’s penthouse apartment. Her home is designed to emulate the wealth she possesses. Yet, the most prominent feature of Ida’s home is its high-ceilings and wide spaces, which visually resembles the Ministry of Information. Similarly, the ducts, which thematically represent the intrusive control of the government over its citizens, feature prominently in Ida’s home. Unlike the ducts in the Buttle’s home, or even Sam’s, which are obtrusive, overbearing, and ill-fitting, the ducts in Ida’s home blend seamlessly into her decor and become a natural part of her home and her life. These two elements create a striking visual connection between her privileged life and the government.
Like Wheatley, Gilliam frames the relationships between the classes and the government through the symbolism created in the homes. Ida’s home, which has many visual connections to the Ministry of Information, shows the strong and secure relationship between the upper class and the government. The wealthy characters in Brazil, like the real-life elites in Thatcher’s Conservative Britain, have a strong bond with the government because they are the government. Yet, the Buttle’s, who lack monetary wealthy due to their place in the hierarchical structure, are terrorized by this government, illustrating Thatcher’s cruel and merciless treatment towards working class families.
In a matter of years, the politics in Britain shifted from one extreme to the next: Labour’s social welfare campaigns, which supported the working classes to success, were cut down and demolished by Thatcher’s capitalistic, elitist, and cruel regime. High-Rise and Brazil both explore the damaging effects these systems had on the working class and, at times, the upper class peoples during these eras. Each political setting grounds the film’s representation of the class spectrum, examining through the characters home how politics impacts the psyche of the class. Yet, both films share a similar quality that remained undiscussed in this paper — the middle class. Both films protagonists are middle class men, who fluctuate between the classes: Laing, who lives on the 25th floor, moves freely throughout the building, forming relationships with both the Wilder’s and Royal, and Sam, despite being Ida’s son and being prompted with many opportunities for advancement in the Ministry, decides to dedicate himself to finding justice for Mr. Buttle and falls in love the Buttle’s “terrorist” neighbor. Despite the working classes desperate desire to breakthrough to another class and the elites desire to keep them out, the middle class has complete access the spectrum. Both protagonists become intertwined in the conflicts between the classes, experiencing first-hand the mistreatment of the working classes and the disparities within the system. Yet, despite their efforts, they are unable to bring the two together. This begs the question, if the middleman, who is unbiased in his perception of the system, can’t find a solution to Britain’s most demanding social issue, then who can?
Brazil. Directed by Terry Gilliam, performances by Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Katherine Helmond, and Robert De Niro, Universal Pictures, 1985.
Guay, Terrence R. “Market Capitalism.” The Business Environment of Europe: Firms, Governments, and Institutions, Cambridge University Press, 2014, pp. 77–113.
High-Rise. Directed by Ben Wheatley, performances by Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, and Elisabeth Moss, StudioCanal, 2015.
Mares, Isabela. “Taxation, Wage Bargaining, and Unemployment.” Cambridge University Press, 2006, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41288459?seq=2#page_scan_tab_contents.