Wednesday 17 July 2013

Review: A Field in England

Year: 2013
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenplay: Amy Jump
Starring:  Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope

Synopsis is here

Ben Wheatley is a British director I really admire. A confident filmmaker who enjoys bending genres and challenging the typical ideals that British film often stumbles into. A Field in England; his fourth feature was one of the 2013’s entries I had a large investment in, purely based on the strength of his previous works. Even the idea behind it had me hooked. A black and white, psychedelic nightmare set during the 17th Century is the type of English period drama I’ll happily get behind (do I look like I watch Downton?).

Much of A Field in England’s buzz stemmed more from its multi-platform release structure. The films makers decided upon releasing the film not only in cinemas, but on video on demand and DVD all on the same day. An idea that we’re slowly seeing more of (albeit in alternative forms: see Sodenbergh’s Bubble as an example) but never to this extent with a U.K release.  Questions were raised on whether this had to do with the niche aspect of the film, or if the film industry can really spark a trend towards such releases. Particularly as many have become more drawn to the idea of home viewing since the quality of their film going experience has been on the decline.  

I viewed the film coming back from work; I popped into my local supermarket and gained some credit on the stores very popular point system. For me it was easier for me to view it this way as the cinemas just due to time and travel. I love going to the cinema but I see the benefits.

However, A Field in England’s release structure seems more to be about casting its range as far as possible due to film’s obtrusiveness than starting a trend. The film’s black and white aesthetic is not the only thing that will put more casual viewers off. A Field in England clearly shows maturation of craft and boldness which British cinema needs, but at the expense of losing the connection carefully built from previous films.

The film feels reminiscent of the works of Ingmar Bergman, as well as the likes of Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) and Witchfinder’s General (1968). The look of Michael Smiley’s O’Neill has shades of Vincent Price’s Matthew Hopkins written all over it. While the unsettling imagery of characters bound by thick rope against their will, is deeply rooted in folk horror. A sense of dread begins to form within the film. Something that the British horror of the 70’s and Wheatley’s own Kill List were much quicker at bring about. The first act often feels more of an exercise of form, than anything else. There is a sense of irony throughout the film as it uses its period setting and cast to cut into very seemingly modern question class and male bonding but none of it feels truly substantial, although Amy Jump does not get enough credit for an often witty script with some wry exchanges placed within it.

Some nice moments are scattered throughout (the tableau style poses, Shearsmith’s phenomenal body language) while more of the outlandish visions begin to seep during the second half with a more unsettling mood coming with it. Yet it all seems a tad too late. The sense of lost futility these men face can be felt by the time the film steps up a gear, but nothing hits as hard as the wedding sequence with Witchfinder General, in which the unfortunate couple of the piece make their own vows within a vandalised church, highlighting the conservative conflict that lies within the folk horror movement (see also The Wicker Man).

So I held my breath embraced the fear and let the Devil in and yet I came out relatively unscathed. Some of A Field in England still tickles me, and there’s good chance I’ll let more of it consume me on a second viewing. I'm not sure however, on whether this is because I brought it on DVD or not.