Monday, February 17, 2014

Microreview [film] : A Field in England directed by Ben Wheatley

{the posters were too good to choose just one}

A Field In England [Ben Wheatley, UK, 2013]

This haunting, beautiful, nightmarish and exasperating film was the first British film to get the Cronenberg treatment of a simultaneous release - on dvd, online and in cinema; and being funded by cable channel Film4 was on T.V. not long after. Only now has it come out in the U.S., however, so I thought it was time for an appraisal as it is both one of the most frustrating and most wonderful horror films I have seen in years, and therefore one I recommend seeking out.

Set during the English Civil War (1640's or thereabout's; before your time anyway), the film begins in the thick of battle somewhere in the countryside. We encounter the bookish and terrified Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith, always excellent and possibly familiar from the legendary League of Gentlemen) who flees the smoke and cannon fire with two deserters. Soon they meet the mysterious and threatening O'Neill (the equally-excellent Michael Smiley) who soon has them under his vicious control, digging for treasure in an anonymous (and emponymous) field. Then they stand around talking like they are in a Beckett play, before going nuts.

Not exactly Dickensian levels of plot, then. Nor is there much in the way of dialogue, and that which occurs often confuses more than explains events. To say this is a mysterious film is to say air is a bit tricky to see. It's baffling and deliberately-so. It doesn't make sense. It has non sequiturs and lengthy periods of plot-less imagery. It estranges the viewer and yet assaults them. All these things are to be freely taken as negatives, and I got the impression the film-makers weren't keen to please anyone other than those that shared their interests and tastes. And yet alienating and niche works are often the most powerful, and personal. For whilst, for example, I have found David Lynch's surrealism and incomprehendable plots sometimes to leave me feeling cold, something here hit home. Well, maybe not hit. Crawled. Slunk.

And then it lingered, like the song you can't stop playing or the book you didn't want to end. Walking down the road days later, I found myself lost in thought about what for me is the flim's highlight - a moment so bizarre as to teeter on the edge of comedy, only to fall back into the ditch of horror. To avoid spoilers yet to illustrate how odd this film is, this moment is a slow-motion shot of Whitehead walking out of a tent, grinning. Not exactly exciting sounding, but trust me - if you like films that, bluntly, creep you out - this moment will disturb and delight in equal measure.

That slow-motion shot is just one example of the stunning digital cinematography by Laurie Rose. Black and white and naturally lit, faces pop from the screen, and the grey skies press down and the balnd flora swims in the wind. This visual palette is then edited in gripping and twisted fashion by Wheatley and the writer-editor Amy Jump (to whom Wheatley is husband), especially when images are mirrored, reversed, spun and generally screwed with in a hypnotosing way at the film's climax, resulting in a psychedlic sequence that was impressive and yet hard to watch. Wheatley also composes static portaits of his characters, staring down the lens or fixed mid-movement, as if posing for a painter. The score, meanwhile, is really fantastic. In fact all departments, form sound to costume, seem to have been given free reign to excel.

Now, as I glance back on the last few paragraphs, I can see I'm deep into writing a rave review. So I'll quickly halt and change tack, for I need to remind you of the 'frustating' and 'exasperating' tags I used. This is not a film that makes sense, and despite a love of mystery and stories that wonder rather than explain, I was frustrated by the impossible-to-understand actions of most of the characters, the reliance on surrealism over realism, and the ending that it is simply as mad as a drunk badger in a sack of mosquitos. I found myself annoyed and upset by the insanity on display, and yearning for sense and reality to arrive. However, I was also conflicted in this reaction - the very things I found wanting were the things that made the film so other-worldly and powerful. Sure, a lot of the goings-on can be explained by hallucinations brought on by mushroom eating and battle trauma, but most of it was sheer craziness. And this kept the horror at the centre of the 'story'. As frustrated as the lack of a clear plot or explanation left me, I revelled in this frightening disorientation and confusion. This is the realm of horror than is more deep, cold terror of the unknown, than mortal shock, like the emotions that come from the weirdest and most disturbing nightmares, where you wake up with an aftertaste of fear but no ability to explain why it was so scary. There are no monsters here, no zombies or Freddies or Jasons. Just atmosphere, dread and human cruelty and pain.

It is also a difficult film to'enjoy'. None of the people are appealing or cause much empathy, and they have no clear mission or goal (their decision to go find an alleged tavern for a pint is quickly thwarted) to root for. It's also set in a world that is to me drab and reminiscent of countless cold and dull Sunday walks in the countryside with my family as a kid, but perhaps English fields are more exotic and fascinating to foreign eyes. Perhaps not. I do admit that a familiarity with the historical background, and with the ferns and trunks of the landscape made it all more captivating than it might otherwise have been, but, as I watched at home on the telly, I found my eyes wandering and there were at least three trips to the kitchen. I never do that during Man vs Food... This is down to a story flaw I believe; the very madness and surrealism from which comes the film's strongest elements and best moments would be damaged by coherence and conventional plotting, but the lack of those makes for less gripping viewing overall.

The cast do an amazing job all round and they help to humanise the other-worldliness of it all. Sheersmith is awkward, arrogant, nerdy and weak, yet also the emotional heart of the film; we feel his pain and root for his survivial the most. Smiley is bullying, charming and cruel, full of the righteous anger that was the due of the invaded and enslaved Irish of the era, and cloaked in occult strangeness on top. The others all represent different shades to human personality and behaviour (the kind fool, the cocky thug) without a hint that they aren't of their time; they all look like they live in their costumes.

As is hopefully clear, A Field In England is - more so than even Wheatley's previous film Kill List - a demanding viewing experience. If the idea of men screaming for ages in muddy grass puts you off, you may find you need to watch Agents of Shield or something afterwards to bring some colour and warmth back to your mind. Maybe some tunes from Despicable Me 2 and a hot chocolate. It has strong influences (an obscure 70's film, 'Winstanley', being the chief one), amazing elements and a great cast, yet many flaws. It is not an outright triumph, but it is different, and for that is to be applauded. Just be in a happy place when you watch it.

The Mathematics:

Cricket crease measurement : 7/10

Goals :  +1 for being so lovingly and obsessively made, and acted; +1 for the moments that stayed with me for days- true horror; +1 for taking on unusual and rarely-seen period in history; +1 for not pandering to such mainstram desires as coherence or meaning

Off-sides : -1 for not pandering to such sensible desires as coherence or meaning; -1 for a reduction in thrill born out of having characters that are hard to root for and a story with no endgame; -1 for doing the rather dull trick of resolving things with bullets

Nerd Coefficient : 8/10 "well worth your time and attention"

POSTED BY : English Scribbler - film-fanatic, book-worm and failed fiddle player. Nerds of A Feather contributor since 2013.