Skip to main content

We shall sample a better quality of suffering in this man’s company, I feel certain.


A Field in England
(2013)

(POTENTIAL SPOILERS – NOT THAT IT WILL HELP ANY) Ben Wheatley seems to be the new darling of British cinema, with all the hazards that brings. A horror buff with art house pretensions, he provides instant sustenance to the cult crowd. The rave receptions of both Kill List and Sightseers, and his ability to hit all the right notes in adoring interviews, has established him as a man who can do no wrong. His latest has met with chin-stroking approval from the critics, but he’s probably none too surprised at the less united response from audiences.

And the naysayers may have a point. Wheatley has bags of style but needs to work on the substance. The originality and flair of A Field in England make it intermittently engrossing, but ultimately rather empty. That’s not so much due to the hype surrounding Wheatley as his promises of hidden depths left unfulfilled.


The setting is the English Civil War. Alchemist’s assistant Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) flees a battleground only to be apprehended by Cutler (Ryan Pope), who has two other captives (Jacob, played by Peter Ferdinando and Richard Glover’s Friend). He leads them all to a field where they are forced to ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms (they don’t look much like the trippy variety, but I’ll let that go), although Whitehead demurs. Pulling on a rope, they find O’Neill (Michael Smiley) at the end of it. It turns out that O’Neill has stolen alchemical texts and occult instruments belonging to his and Whitehead’s master (“an eminent alchemist, physician and astronomer”). O’Neill charges Whitehead, more skilled in the arts than he, with finding treasure buried in the field.

That’s the gist of it, but the result is an intentionally semi-coherent exercise in stretching a slender idea to breaking point, almost as if Wheatley felt the need to bulk a short film out to feature length so he could add it to his high turnover of features.


Field takes the occult undercurrents of Kill List and runs with them in a wilfully oblique direction. The director embraces the restrictions of a low budget production to the extent that he frequently summons the spectre of an experimental student film, with all the inadvisable pretension and not so impressive visual conceit that implies. Set against such shortcomings is the frequent beauty of the cinematography (from regular Wheatley lenser Laurie Rose). On occasions the images do look rather flat, announcing that they were indeed shot against a hedge on someone’s farm. But at others there’s a majesty to the black and white photography, evoking a heightened sense of place and time and instilling an unnerving atmosphere.


There’s something to be said for Wheatley’s attempts to rediscover the high strangeness of England, its folklore and pagan heritage. This kind of subject matter has rarely been tapped since the heights of Hammer, and there are a multitude of possibilities. If Kill List was his gangland twist on The Wicker Man, the roots of Field lie in Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw (a most peculiar film, one that at first sight might be dismissed as just another Hammer but is well worth investigating). 


Wheatley and his wife/collaborator/screenplay writer Amy Jump have again come up with an arresting premise, which then struggles to find a firm footing. Nothing is quite so startling as the rope-pulling sequence, with its hints of just-out-of-reach magical realms (apparently this references a means of pulling someone within a mushroom circle back from the fairie kingdom). There are intriguing and unexplained signs; the runes coughed up by Whitehead, the woodcut on the stake the rope is bound round. The unseen experience of poor, cowardly Whitehead within O’Neill’s tent and his subsequent bewitched scouring of the field (now he is bound with a rope, lest he be lost) is shot and scored for maximum aberrance. But somehow it is not quite so inspired. There’s a sense that Wheatley’s metaphysical dabblings must inevitably be dragged back down to earth, buried beneath his penchant for mud and blood and guts. Most likely he would shy away from the fractured temporal subjectivity Nicolas Roeg brings to his films, or find himself unable to elevate his rather literal strangeness to the more exotic musings of David Lynch.

So Field takes The Shining 101 approach to impenetrable narrative; clarity is the enemy of longevity. The greater the scope for interpretation, the more inevitable will be its cult following. And, like Kubrick, Wheatley fully embraces the disconcerting potential of sound. Except that here it feels like a repetitive, undiscerning tactic. Yes, discordancy is provocative. But it shouldn’t be a crutch.


And one must conclude that Wheatley is not so interested in exploring character or theme as he is the visceral and aesthetic possibilities before him. He nurses a detachment from his characters, observing them without affection (I’m thinking of Kill List too). As a result, only the surface effects resonate; there’s a superficiality akin to a horror director whose foremost concern is with the number of scares he can pack in, or an action director measuring his success on the number of explosions he detonates.  


During the early stages there is much in the way of ribald talk to offset the stilted period language. There’s also shitting and pissing and proffered cocks. Wheatley has couched this in terms of emphasising the historical connection of man to nature, to the countryside and the English field. But it is more suggestive of the internal struggle between his loftier ideas and an impulse to wallow in the carnal and corporeal.

He ticks back and forth between these. At several stages actorly tableaus are unwisely configured. Then he goes mental with a 10 minute stroboscopic '80s pop video (the point where I gave up the will). So inevitably, when some semblance of narrative propulsion is clawed back during the finale, this is replete with loving composed shots of exploding legs and heads.


There was a point when Neil Marshall was the next big thing in British genre filmmaking, until he duly disappeared up his own arse with Doomsday. In some respects Wheatley is a more creative version of Marshall; he’s sufficiently inspired and he is to be commended for trying something different, but he suffers from similar failings. Wheatley’s a capable director, and his pet obsessions are potent and fresh, but he really needs to hone his storytelling and develop a discernable attachment to his vassals.

Speaking of whom, I can’t fault the travelling players. Smiley and Shearsmith are astutely cast, the former embracing his potential for off-beam malevolence. Shearsmith convincingly conveys the transformation from a cravenly timid man of letters to a possessed and purposeful bringer of death. And Pope, Ferdinando and Glover, none of whom I’m particularly familiar with, bring a naturalism to bear that is both grounding and simultaneously makes the whole seem even more uncanny.


Does the resurrection of characters (one more than once) mean that that none of this ever happened? That they’re ghosts summoned from the battlefield, to work for O’Neill in another realm (we don’t know whether he was being pulled into or out of the fairie world; he also claims to have conjured Whitehead)? Or that, by overcoming his fear (albeit aided by copious hallucinogens), Whitehead saves his co-captives (and condemns his captors)? And, if the “treasure” is a skull, whose skull is it? The trouble is, Wheatley never engages the head nor the heart sufficiently that these questions really matter. And you can be sure that, whatever explanation (if there is one) he has locked away in his bonce, it will disappoint as much as the ridiculously overblown denouement of Kill List.


I thought the trailer for Field looked hilariously bad, the sort of self-involved atrocity drama students might come up with if they were deposited in the countryside with a camera and a few fancy dress costumes. And then Matt Berry would spoof of it (Julian Barratt’s cameo treads a fine line). Fortunately the trailer doesn’t do the film justice at all, but Wheatley does seem to think that hints and portents and conjurings give him a free pass. As long as it’s all a bit weird and unexplained and occult, a horror-tinged J J Abrams Mystery Box (well, a Damon Lindelof one anyway), people will lap it up. And he’s probably right. To an extent. As the reaction to the finale of Lost showed, such an approach can only carry you so far.

***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his…

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded
The Premise
George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985)
(SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and gleefully distr…

Seems silly, doesn't it? A wedding. Given everything that's going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010)
(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.