Friday, July 12, 2013

'A Field in England' (2013) directed by Ben Wheatley


*spoilers within*

A Field in England is a testament to what you can do with a couple of costumes, some great actors and an eye for cinematography.  It's also a lesson on how little you really need to make a movie - get a couple of DV cameras, head out to a field and just starting shooting. There's a ton of limitations to shooting on a micro-budget like this and Wheatley demonstrates how to cleverly work around them - showing how to suggest with mood, dialogue and old fashioned cinematic sleight of hand what you don't have the money to put on screen.  

All of this is important, because A Field in England is one weird as hell film with, to put it mildly, questionable commercial potential.  Yet it's a film that raises interesting questions,: allowing Wheatley to continue his interrogation of the relationship between modern Britain and our violent, oppressive and chaotic history.


Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith)
We begin the film tumbling through a hedge in the middle of the Civil War. A battle rages on the other side of it, and running in terror away from both the carnage and his strict master is the effete, servile Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith).  He soon meets Friend (Ryan Pope) and Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), two working class travellers being held hostage by Cutler (Ryan Pope).  Whitehead joins the two men as Cutler's captive, who brings them to his master, O'Neill (Michael Smiley).  O'Neill is a Satanic, mystical and terrifying figure, and with Cutler as his stooge, forces the three captives to find the treasure he is convinced is buried in the field.

It's a pretty straightforward plot, but Wheatley makes a beeline for tripped out psychedelia and very quickly things become bizarrely tangled up.  The conscious decision here is to make a historical 'anti-epic'.  Period dramas are notorious for pumped-up self-importance: actors flouncing about in codpieces in astoundingly lavish sets before skipping off to CG-tinged, flashily shot battle sequences populated by thousands of jobbing extras.  Not here. This is a film that wallows in mud, shit, blood and disease.  In one excellent bit of dialogue, Whitehead diagnoses the many ailments of Jacob.  As he stares at his sore-covered cock he lists them off:
"You suffer a disease of the private parts occasioned by too much venereal sport.  I also deduce gout, a bloody flux, a pustule of the mouth, 'the pissing disease', St Anthony's Fire, haemorrhoids and palsy, brought on by drink."
Wheatley plays the sadist, taking an obvious pleasure in the misery he inflicts upon the men. His characters get stung when they shit in nettle patches, eat disgusting looking food and while digging a hole, get literally pissed on from above.  But though the film is frequently wryly humourous - the squalor and death gets to you, creating an oppressively stygian atmosphere. This black and white world echoes films like Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev and Frantisek Vlácek's Marketa Lazarová.  There are several dreamy frozen tableaux that bring to mind medieval woodcuts in their composition, and one impossibly creepy moment where a grinning, apparently zombified Whitehead 'sniffs out' the buried treasure.  These scenes are  elevated by an excellent and hugely ominous ambient score by composer Jim Williams.




Intelligently, the script takes pains to make these characters archetypically British, their sensibilities immediately recognisable to a modern audience.  They grouse, whinge and moan, swearing all the while and make sarcastic comments about their predicament.  There's a tendency in cinema to treat historical characters as if they're in a Shakespeare play, but these men could walk into a pub anywhere in the country and start chatting away to the landlord and no-one would bat an eyelid.  But this isn't the only way Wheatley draws us into this world.

A major factor in this is the setting.  The rolling, grassy, tree-bordered field is a perfect 17th century surrounding and the period costumes fitting into it perfectly.  This works both ways though - the fact that you don't need to dress the set to make it look like the past means that it's severed in time.  We can imagine ourselves in this field - heck, we could hop on a train and physically be there in about half an hour - it's easy to picture walking where they are walking, standing there gazing out over a view essentially unchanged for thousands of years.  The constancy of these meadows weighs heavily in the British psyche, bringing to mind these famous lines from William Blake's Jerusalem:
And did those feet in ancient time.

Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

This notion of continuity in the collective British cultural memory ties directly into the use of hallucinogens in the film: psilocybin mushrooms have been growing naturally on the British Isles since before there were people around to eat them.  They're as intrinsic a part of the British landscape as gorse, thistles, heather and nettles.  Every civilisation that has lived on this land here has had potential access to them.  If you or I go out to a sunny field and gobble a few handfuls, you'll experience the same intense sensory overload as a bored, thrill-seeking Celtic milkmaid.  You'll freak out like a Roman Legionnaire who happened to pick the wrong kind of mushroom for dinner.   You'll get a direct taste of the same rush of spiritual ecstasy that fuelled a Druidic priest as he stared up at the constellations on a summer's night.



The idea of a direct connection from modern Britain to the chaos of the past is something Wheatley explored in his last film, Sightseers (and, apparently in Kill List, which I really should watch ASAP).  In Sightseers a buttoned down 'nice' couple awoke the brutal warrior and homicidal witch buried within them, moving between ancient monuments, being haunted by the bloody pagan past of Britain.

With these connections painstakingly set up, what do we make of the bonkers, screeching, psychedelic apocalypse that makes up the film's conclusion?  This is the centrepiece of the film, a headlong launch into the avant-garde that's so intense that the film opens with a warning to audiences that some flashing, stroboscopic craziness is going to go down.  It's a pretty good simulation of an intense mushroom trip, but one image becomes repeated over and over - a rising black sun.

This is the Sol Niger, a powerful alchemical symbol that represents great transformative power.  It's entirely appropriate that it should turn up considering that Whitehead, who is experiencing this mushroom-powered shift in consciousness, is a alchemist by trade.  The Black Sun is heavily associated with a forced split in the Self, the chasm between the unconscious and conscious mind.  As as symbol, the Black Sun shatters logic and exploits cracks in our psychological armour - forcing a new level of understanding upon us.  This image is repeated in a number of forms throughout the film.





While it's O'Neill who's searching for literal buried treasure in the field, it's Whitehead, by ingesting the hallucinogens that discovers the source of true power within himself.  He's a character that's harnessed the psychogeographical power of the field, reversing the narrative flow of the film and effortlessly vanquishing the wounded O'Neill.  He defeats this devil by shooting his face off (a vision of which can be seen in twisted, mirrored form throughout the freakout sequence) and claiming his identity for his own.   Wheatley is saying, as he did in Sightseers, that the potential for cruelty and violence lies submerged inches from the surface the English psyche.  We may consider ourselves civilised, enlightened, cosmopolitan intellectuals, but we stand on the shoulders of monsters: slave traders, colonial torturers, atrocity-loving soldiers, blue-flecked barbarians - an army of horrors - our green and pleasant fields are fertilised with blood.

There's so much going on in A Field in England that it's difficult to summarise.  I haven't even touched on the thematic importance of the class divides running through the film.  This film is pretty damn far from the mainsteam, but it greatly rewards those willing to delve deep into its symbology.  I've seen it twice now, and a third time can't be long coming.



A Field in England is out on practically every format right now.

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2 Responses to “'A Field in England' (2013) directed by Ben Wheatley”

Peter Hopkins said...
July 22, 2013 at 2:40 PM

I saw this over the weekend on DVD. I wasn't sure exactly what to expect, but pretty sure what I saw isn't something I would EVER have expected.

I loved it. After a day it had wormed its way into my brain and I can't wait to have an evening free so I can watch it again.

My rational brain wants to view the film from a logical and rational point of view, but certain elements don't fit into that; the idiot returning from the grave, O'Neill popping out of thin air on the end of a rope, mystical carvings emerging from within Whitehead.

And yet, other elements follow a clear scientific narrative. Whitehead is a scientist, an academic (at least, he considers himself such, with hindsight we can look back and know that divination and astrology is all nonsense).

I dunno, I'm rambling here. I'm definitely got another viewing scheduled, and reading your article here has helped cast some new light on it!


londoncitynights said...
July 22, 2013 at 3:52 PM

I think there's so much going on with the film that picking any one element to focus on means you end up missing out on something else. I completely skipped over writing about O'Neill emerging from the ground on the end of a rope because frankly I didn't understand it. I'm sure it does all fit together somehow though - it made a lot more sense on a second viewing at any rate.

Glad you liked the write-up!


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