Monday, July 15, 2013

Review: A FIELD IN ENGLAND: 1648 A Place Oddity

England, an England so distantly archaic that it must be shown in deep monochrome. A ragtag group of deserters from the Civil War find each other and head to a promised alehouse across a field and through the trees over there. Once in cups they will decide on how to proceed. Desertion carries the death penalty. Deserters must have a story. But before they can cross the field to find the alehouse they stop for a free stew up of the local mushrooms.

As this happens we hear their talk, learn a little of them, where they're from and how they've come to be there. The loyalty of each, roundhead or cavalier, has long been abandoned but there is a disparity among them about personal belief. The journeyman astrologer/alchemist Whitehead still clings (in a protest-too-much manner) to his Christianity. There are two rugged soldiers, one driven by the war to a kind of earthy nihilism and the other whose military bearing makes his desertion less explicable. And there is a clownish soldier who might have only deserted because he thought he was dead (you have to see it to get that one).

In reading up on the local responses to this film I was introduced to the term am-dram, amateur dramatics, which was used by the frostier reviews to describe the opening scenes of this film. I can't see it myself. The stilted dialogue and mix of accents which vary from geezer Cockney to Norn Irn might feel a tad stagey but the dialogue itself and its pepper of anachronisms served to uproot the historical drama pageant of the piece and declare its own terms. This film has a setting rather than a period. It is an ancien regime falling bloodily apart, belief and class structure are being splattered on the green and pleasant land and draining into the soil below. The setting is Chaos and there are few times more symbolic of chaos than civil war.

Into this destabilised scene enters the necromancer O'Neill. He is a rougue fellow black arts journeyman bound to the same master as Whitehead but escaped the master's influence earlier. Whitehead was charged with his pursuit and capture. O'Neill, however, enters with magisterial presence, aided immediately by the more servile soldier as though it was preplanned. From this point A Field in England takes its series of shapes.

O'Neill explains to Whitehead that they are there to uncover a treasure the location of which will require Whitehead's skills of divination. The divination begins with one of the film's tableaus which shows the group gathered outside O'Neill's tent variously in what looks like worship or phallic military authority (I'm really not being that figurative here, it's pretty hard edged) as Whitehead's agonised, terrified screams tear out from the tent. It's a mix of religious revelation and birth pain. He emerges from the tent in slow motion trailing a thick umbilical rope, walking like a marionette with his arms lifted but hanging loose, a demonic grin stretching his face. The music swells with an aching majesty. Because of the slow motion the others seem to remain in the tableau poses in worshipful awe of this vision they are powerless to explain.

If by this stage you are still searching for plot and dissatisfied with the idea that the structure of the treasure hunt is there as a frame for the expression and exploration of a deal of other things then this film is not for you. I've mentioned the tableaus a few times now without saying anything about them so I'll do that now as it supports what I've just stated. There are sequences in this film in which the characters are posed against their background. They are not freezframes, the actors are moving as little as they would if posing for a group photograph but their gestures and postures are deliberate.

Why is this so? There is neither time travelling photographer nor wood cut artist present. These displays (there are several) are for the audience and mark a point at which the film itself steps out of its flow to forge a statement. Contrast this with the use of tableau in a Peter Greenaway film wherein a gathering like a dinner scene will be so presented (many even clearly framed by the set's architecture). No one in a Greenaway tableau is aware that they are in one. The ones in A Field in England are carefully placed over the film, illustrations of its business rather than active parts of it. (Can you tell I'm really avoiding use of the prefix "meta" here?) As with the mix 'n' match dialogue we are being invited to ponder what we are seeing. While we might struggle with some of this, by the time we are assaulted with the sequence of hallucination (strobing, mirroring, warping and pretty much anything else Wheatley could throw at the screen) we should have some idea of where we have come from in the film.

There are moments in the dialogue towards the end that would sound trite in other settings but it would be a mistake to dismiss them as the apocalyptic, rank and stinky context in which they appear supports them with a solid foundation. It might defy the principles of good building but it does form a building.

I like going to a multiplex and diving into a big high tech actioner where everything falls into place as expected and tastes as reliable as the ice cream in a choc top. I love, however, sitting in front of something that I might only understand well after I have seen it, that I can neither predict nor control. This can be upsetting, haunting, or meaningless or boring but I still prefer not knowing. The removal of control from the audience is the essence of great horror but while A Field in England alludes to some genre pieces (there are a swathe of films it might evoke for you like Dead Man or Witchfinder General) it's business is to creep us rather than confront us into thinking. There is a lot here to think about.

So, whether psychedelic Western out of water, history pageant for Beckett fans, centuries-early prequels for Wheatley's Kill List or Sightseers, A Field in England ably progresses the work of a filmmaker whose every new work defies the expectations of the previous ones. Mention must be made of the aptness of the cast, particularly Reece Shearsmith (deeper and more complex than any of his creations in League of Gentlemen) and Michael Smiley (with an even more unsettling power than he brought to Gal in Kill List). The film also includes the funniest dying monologue outside of anything in Monty Python.

Terry Gilliam wanted to put on the poster of his troubling Tideland "It's great ... the second time." That could be the logline of Ben Wheatley's entire career. May he so continue.

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