Tuesday, 13 August 2013

A Field in England - "Open up and let the devil in!"

With all the authority of someone who has never taken drugs before. This film is definitely a trip.
Britain... Britain... Britain...  

On one hand you have Edgar Wright, and on the other you have Ben Wheatley. Two British film-makers who use the reality of what it’s like to be British as the basis for their films. Teaming up once again with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Edgar Wright released The World’s End, the concluding piece of ‘the cornetto trilogy’. Three films that have infused big cinematic conventions to a small English setting, much to the ring-a-ding-ding of the box office.

By contrast, Ben Wheatley has gained a reputation for making a number of off-kilter films, such as 2011’s unbearably harrowing viewing experience Kill List and 2012’s black comedy Sightseers, both followed this year by A Field in England. Wheatley’s films won’t set the box office ablaze (not yet at least) but his films are quintessentially British. He has the talent to put the audience in a state of great unease, exploring a very British sense of madness delving into violence though not without tongue being placed firmly in cheek.

Released simultaneously across cinemas, TV, video on demand and DVD, A Field in England is shot entirely in black and white with a small ensemble cast on location in… well… a field in England. The film is a drug-induced period piece, that ventures into the 17th Century to the time of the English Civil War. Strangely, this period of history hasn’t exactly had the big cinematic treatment despite the period’s obvious wealth in terms of themes and spectacle. A Field in England is not the big cinematic treatment, in fact, a part of me did think that it could just be a bunch of guys taking part in a modern day battle re-enactment. A couple of guys who take the role-playing a bit too far of course... Post it to r/fantheories I guess...  

There is a plot. Allow me to explain.   

From out of the roar of canon fire of a particularly grueling battle, emerges Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) – a cowardly scholar who is fleeing from his master (Julian Barrett). Whitehead’s only task is to bring a known Irish outlaw and alchemist to justice, something he has failed at pathetically. Escaping his master’s clutches he bands together with three lowly footsoldiers: Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), Cutler (Ryan Pope) and a benign simpleton known only by the name friend (Richard Glover). Deserting the battlefield, the group go in search of an alehouse. An appropriate starting point for any adventure. The alehouse never comes however, and the group soon find themselves lost and under the influence of mushrooms. Then emerges O’Neil (Michael Smiley), the very man Whitehead was originally supposed to be looking for. Being a meek scholar, the tables are quickly reversed on Whitehead, as the villainous O’Neil enlists the group to search for a great treasure he believes is buried underneath a particular field that is covered in hallucinatory mushrooms.

Let's look for treasure.
A Field in England is best understood as a story about the British male and the notion of power. Providing historical context is the civil war, but it isn’t something that is explored with any particular detail during the film, even though you can read into presentation of the historical period. The war defined the future of Britain, religion, government, the country’s very soul. Parallels can be drawn with today, with British society divided, handling the pressures of the global recession. Arguably, Britain isn’t great anymore. And there is something that resonates with that notion, in this - a story about five men scrambling around in the undergrowth searching for treasure that may or may not be real.  

The central power struggle lies between O’Neil and Whitehead. As the 'devil', O’Neil uses fear to control the group. Michael Smiley uses that harsh Ulster drawl to menacing effect, (“Open up and let the devil in!”) especially in contrast to  Reece Shearsmith’s pathetically bookish Whitehead. It is a compliment to Shearsmith’s performance that Whitehead continues to gain the audience’s sympathies, I mean this is from the guy who played Papa Lazarou! He’s one of those characters who is slightly incompetent as a human being, but someone who has experienced defeat at every turn and assumed a naturally submissive state. As somebody who once did a masters degree, I felt I could relate to Whitehead as somebody who has spent too much time within the academic bubble. He is obviously intelligent and in possession of rare skills (including lacemaking!) but his attention is drawn towards books rather than reality which is at odds with the other characters, who can adapt better to the deserter's life and a diet of mild altering mushrooms.

"Go on, say 'Have a Banana' one more time. I dare you..."
Whitehead is the learned but unlearned man, O'Neil is the outlaw and the force of suppression. As for the rest of the cast, Ryan Pope's Cutler is the soldier, somebody who can subject power over people so long as he is armed and has orders. Peter Ferdinando as Jacob is the underdog and essentially acts as the voice of the audience, addressing the shiteness of the situation they are faced whenever necessary. Richard Glover, as friend adds humour and levity in his simple understanding of the world. Even though there is more to the character than meets the eye, with a 'complicated' backstory involving his wife and a penchant to not stay dead when killed. 

Most of the cast is comprised of familiar faces from British cult comedy, Shearsmith from League of Gentlemen and Smiley from Edgar Wright’s Spaced. Julian Barrett even appears early on as Whitehead’s master. I was expecting Noel Fielding to cameo as an giant sexualized mushroom during one of the many hallucinatory scenes, but it never transpires thankfully.   

The dialogue exists somewhere between Shakespeare and Blackadder. There is a lyrical flow to dialogue, a fair amount of toilet humour and some profound lines (Cutler: What do you see friend? Whitehead: Nothing. Perhaps only shadows…). The film does feel very influenced by amateur theatre in its mechanics with all the trappings of Elizabethan theatre. Minimalist surroundings located in the wilds of nature, away from civilisation, a setting where anything could happen. It could just as easily be performed on stage, especially its many tableaux scenes, which heighten the classical elements whilst serving as chapter breaks. In which the characters stand in static as if posing for a painting or diorama. This still remains a film, however, and Ben Wheatley as always manages to create a number of scenes that are designed to have a traumatic effect on the viewer.

One of the film's many tableaux sequences. 
One scene that will undoubtedly leave an impression comes fairly early on. It has one hell of a setup. Whitehead has succumbed to Michael Smiley’s villainous O’Neil. He has tried in vain to reason with the irish man that he is his prisoner, but it is of course the other way round. Whitehead is invited with an open hand to descend into O’Neil’s tent. It is of course less of an invitation and more a direct order, made pretty and consensual (almost) by a fanciful tableaux sequence. Cutler stands holding Friend and Jacob at gunpoint, the latter two bowing submissively indicative of their lowly social status. At this point, Jacob breaks the fourth wall, by looking up from the ground directly at the audience, acknowledging the horror that is about to play out. What follows is almost five minutes of agonising screaming as Whitehead undergoes some nameless brutality within the confines of the tent. We don’t fully understand what O’Neil is doing to Whitehead, whether he is being raped or tortured, or submitted to some bizarre alchemical practices. We witness it only through the screaming and the grimmaces of the group outside. But then the moment comes. Whitehead emerges from the tent. Transformed. 

What follows is the single creepiest scene I have witnessed in cinema in recent memory. Whitehead walks out of the tent, his upper body bound in rope. A freakish smile beaming across his face indicating a state of higher consciousness existing somewhere between Nirvana and pure terror. He walks out of the tent in slow motion as if learning to walk again, all the while that demented grin spread across his face as he moves past his comrades, staring them down. All to the sound of a euphoric melodies of Blanck Mass’s Chernobyl. It is a deeply unsettling sequence though mesmerizing at the same time. Gives me shivers just thinking about it… ehhhh…

The mushrooms and drug-induced sequences are of course another focus of the feature. They essentially serve to transform Whitehead from meek academic man servant to civil war duel pistol toting Popeye. Wheatley includes a number of startling hallucinatory sequences, employing double and kaleidoscopic vision. Under the effect of mushrooms, the field appears blasted by the elements, swept with wind, and an ominous black planet appearing in the sky. Having never really experienced the effects of drugs (you’re going to need a large enough dosage…) it does provide a rush which energises the film after it’s predominantly black and white stillness of its first and second half. The rush comes from witnessing the transformation of Whitehead, his mind enlarged, as he drops his studious and celibate qualities to battle the devil. Apparently, drugs can be good for you, I don’t know what Mr Mackey was talking about…    

"Go on, say 'hello Dave' one more time. I dare you". 
The film ends quite predictably enough. Whitehead, with the help of Jacob and the seemingly invincible Friend betters O’Neil, with a shot that blows through his right eye socket. Whitehead, seems to assume the mantle of his suppressor, perhaps to take his place, returning back to the battlefield where events began, perhaps with a new sense of bravery, perhaps to entice a new group of stragglers into looking for more gold, where he can further study the alchemical properties of the mushrooms to a greater degree. Either way, Wheatley has provided the entire final reel, for amateur film makers to download and create their own edit. Noble.

It is perhaps a fitting end to this experiment of a film, that largely allowed audiences to see the film their own way. Despite being set in the 17th Century, A Field in England is very much founded on that punk mentality. Coming from nothing, with the help of the most basic resources to achieve… something. 

But what does this say about England today? I hear the sensible film critic say? That we should gorge on copious amounts of mushrooms and then go trigger-happy in the houses of parliament? Definitely! Let's do that! No, I think my understanding is a lot more simplistic, be your own man and step out of your comfort zone, don't be a slave to institutions, or anyone who is primed to take advantage of you. Open up and let the devil in - by all means, but be ready to moderate his attachment over you.    

Michael Smiley was just one of the great things about Spaced. 

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