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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

This popularity of yours. Is there a trick to it?

The Two Popes (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globes joke, in which he dropped The Two Popes onto a list of the year’s films about paedophiles, rather preceded the picture’s Oscar prospects (three nominations), but also rather encapsulated the conversation currently synonymous with the forever tainted Roman Catholic church; it’s the first thing anyone thinks of. And let’s face it, Jonathan Pryce’s unamused response to the gag could have been similarly reserved for the fate of his respected but neglected film. More people will have heard Ricky’s joke than will surely ever see the movie. Which, aside from a couple of solid lead performances, probably isn’t such an omission.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.