Monday, December 16, 2013
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: A Field in England
If the last reel of ‘Kill List’ saw Ben Wheatley getting his ‘Wicker Man’ funk on, then ‘A Field in England’ channels British cinema’s other great religious violence horror movie, ‘Witchfinder General’. Shot in deep, moody black and white that also brings to mind ‘Winstanley’ and ‘Onibaba’, ‘A Field in England’ is defined by the rural landscapes of England and describes a journey into the most primal, superstitious, self-loathing and class-enforced areas of the English psyche. It’s confusing, frustrating, nihilistic, exhilarating and up itself all at the same time. It’s about as far from being a laugh-fest as you can possibly imagine. Since I’ve loaded up this introductory paragraph with comparisons, let’s float this one: it’s like Ken Loach circa ‘The Devils’ meets Andrei Tarkovsky on a day when they both decided to toke the entire contents of Jim Morrison’s drugs stash.
In other words, it’s a Ben Wheatley film.
Four films into a career that’s shown no sign of anything but utterly going his own way, a Ben Wheatley film comes with certain prerequisites. Terms and conditions, if you like. First up, he will resolutely not make it easy for the viewer. You will be expected to pay attention, you will be made to think, you will not be given any pat explanations or conclusions, and you can (un)comfortably expect the film to get under your skin and fuck with your head for days afterwards. Secondly, narrative coherence or traditional structure are anathema to his aesthetic and were taken outside and given a good kicking before the first word of the screenplay was even typed. Thirdly, he doesn’t need to like his characters. And there’s an almost certain probability that you won’t either.
All of this makes for a viewing experience that’s sometimes visceral, sometimes compelling and sometimes downright annoying. ‘A Field in England’ is no exception. Filmed for just £300,000 and delivering pure widescreen visual beauty (even in its ugliest moments) that’d convince you the budget was ten times that, it’s set in the Civil War but jettisons any real Roundheads vs Cavaliers historical context for a hallucinogenic trip across a field and into a heart of darkness that would make Conrad weep and Coppola turn up the Wagner.
The plot – yeah, let’s be silly enough to use the word “plot” in the context of a Ben Wheatley joint – is basically this: the cowardly Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) flees from his hectoring master Commander Trower (Julian Barratt) during the confusion of battle. He meets deserters Cutler (Ryan Pope), Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and Friend (Richard Glover) who are similarly using the confusion to slip away. Their plan: find an alehouse. En route, they bump into the messianic O’Neill (Michael Smiley), an alchemist whom Trower had despatched Whitehead to apprehend. Instead, O’Neill takes Whitehead and the others prisoner and compels them to assist him in finding hidden treasure in a nearby, uh, field.
Hold off, I hear you say, why be pejorative about the idea of a Ben Wheatley film having a coherent narrative arc? Surely the events described above constitute a narrative arc, albeit a rather straightforward one. Surely the character dynamics are palpably evident.
Ah, well here’s the rub. Early on in the proceedings, our AWOL quartet improvise a meal of mushrooms. The rest of the film builds through hallucinations, paranoia, cold edgy fear and peasant superstition into a psychotronic wig-out that manages, simultaneously, to (a) emerge as the most purposefully calculated feat of editing I think I’ve ever seen and (b) give the impression that the filmmakers have entirely lost their grip on sanity and decided to take you with them as they go screaming headlong towards the abyss.
Like ‘Kill List’, ‘A Field in England’ isn’t the kind of film that lends itself to easy or conventional reviewing. There are elements that come on like absurdist humour but without a trace element on even the uneasiest of laughs. There are moments of arty-farty indulgence that would have been excised for shame from a student film. And there are entire swathes of brain-searing imagery and visual trickery that breaks down your molecules and refuses them into something entirely new and unexpected. The closest I can come to a defining statement on ‘A Field in England’ is that it’s a 91-minute Rorschach test and I’d advise anyone approaching it to be very wary of how deeply they peer into its shifting surfaces.