Saturday, 6 July 2013

A trip through time - A Field In England Review

"This country is on the edge of something," declares one character towards the end of Brighton-based filmmaker Ben Wheatley's fourth feature, A Field In England. It's not alone: Wheatley himself has, over the last couple of years, innovated and subverted his way to the cutting edge of British cinema with films that echo those of other all-English one-offs like Nicolas Roeg and Derek Jarman in their formal gymnastics and flagrant disregard of propriety and convention.

Of all his provocative output so far, England is undoubtedly what would be called the most 'out-there'. Almost totally lacking in the usual comforts of narrative coherence, it recounts the terrifying ordeal of a motley gang of English civil war soldiers, brilliantly played by a cast of British character actors, who, fed up with the constant fighting, abscond from the battlefield through a hedgerow and head off in search of an ale house supposedly located nearby. Unfortunately for them, they end up the captives of an arrogant and sadistic alchemist, O'Neill, played with exquisite menace by Michael Smiley, and are forced to dig for a treasure the magician believes to be buried in the vicinity, whilst subsisting on a diet made almost exclusively of hallucinogenic mushrooms gathered from the local flora.

Needless to say, things quickly descend into madness and hysteria, both for the characters onscreen and the grammar of the cinematic storytelling itself. Wheatley conjures a peculiar, pungently otherworldly atmosphere via the recurring use of esoteric tableau vivant, the cast suddenly breaking the fourth wall by arranging themselves in motionless living pictures, as if illustrating that the characters are frozen in remote historical time, or pointing towards some inaccessible metaphysical truth underlying their plight.

Indeed, there does appear to be a philosophical dimension of sorts to the film (albeit in a mode much more stimulant-fuelled rambling late-night student argument than rigorous lecture hall debate). Wheatley has said that he chose the Civil War as a backdrop not simply because it is a criminally underrepresented period in British moviemaking, but because it marked a revolution in thought as well as civil life, with the English throwing off the shackles of received wisdom about authority and religious superstition. The fractured structure of England would appear to be striving to emulate what it perhaps felt like to be living on the jagged edge of a new world. Interpreted in this way, the story of the soldiers attempts to free themselves from the bondage of the tyrannical O'Neill functions as a microcosm of what the country was undergoing psychologically and sociologically at the time.

But one probably shouldn't take its mysteries too seriously: Wheatley has said that his intention was to make a modern successor to the spate of 'midnight matinee' movies that became enormously popular in the late seventies, such as Rocky Horror Picture Show and Eraserhead. In other words, this is a film striving for cult status, and indeed it's certainly possible to imagine fans gathering in the future, dressed in filthy period rags and reciting the ripe and knowingly ridiculous dialogue.

Using the Empire method of film review, one could indeed say that it comes off as a feature-length episode of Blackadder directed by David Lynch. Like the great American pop surrealist, Wheatley has no qualms about using editing and sound design as a way of assaulting the audience, as exemplified in one incredible, brain-splitting sequence where the film evokes a mushroom trip by cutting back and forth between different shots at incredible speed, an effect designed to overload the viewer's cerebellum as it attempts to process multiple images simultaneously.

And like Lynch, Wheatley is concerned to establish a mood of unnameable and un-placeable dread. What the demonic energies that possess the field actually are remains unanswered, but Wheatley and his screenwriting partner Amy Jump are at pains to suggest something intangibly awful lurking beneath the surface. One moment, where Reece Shearsmith's cowardly academic Whitehead emerges from the alchemist's tent, bound to a rope and sporting a monstrous grin straight out of a Chris Cunningham music video, is the most inexplicably creepy thing you'll see all year.

With its unruliness and experimentalism, A Field In England is unlikely to be for everybody. In fact, it's probably hardly for anybody (hence the 'cult' vibe). But in my opinion and those of others who admire Wheatley's singular, gutsy vision, whilst the distant past might have been very dark indeed, the near future - of British cinema at least - is looking much brighter.