A Field in England: A film swathed in mist and murk

Director Ben Wheatley - "a Guy Ritchie for hipsters" - has attracted something of a devoted following. But surely it's time for him to start making movies that reach beyond his fan base?

A Field in England (15)
dir: Ben Wheatley

Few film-makers have acquired the status of critical darling as speedily as the Essex-born Ben Wheatley. For a certain kind of (usually male and thirtysomething) critic, Wheatley’s work, with its deference to cult British cinema of the 1970s, is as comforting as LA Confidential was to audiences of an older vintage: it reassures them that the cinema of their youth has not perished. Everyone else would be forgiven for wondering why a clearly superior director such as Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did) misses out on the same cover stories and fanboy fuss. It comes down to the comforts of genre. Abrahamson’s films are amorphous and ambiguous, whereas Wheatley’s can be flogged as easily as detergent, if not yet as widely. With his stylistic swagger, shock tactics and immediately recognisable reference points, he’s a Guy Ritchie for hipsters.

His fourth picture, A Field in England, is groundbreaking for reasons that have nothing to do with what’s on-screen: it’s the first British film to be made available on DVD, free television and video-on-demand on the same day that it is released in cinemas. In all other respects, it sticks to the director’s formula of evoking elements from favourite works of British cinema (early Mike Leigh, The Wicker Man, Performance, Witchfinder General) in much the same way that standup comics once curried favour with nostalgic audiences by mentioning Spangles and space hoppers. Whether these elements hang together seems beside the point. Atmosphere is what counts.

Reece Shearsmith plays Whitehead, an alchemist’s assistant wandering the countryside with a ragtag band of fellow deserters during the English civil war. (The film was shot entirely on an estate in Farnham, Surrey.) Heading in the approximate direction of an alehouse, they stumble upon O’Neil (Michael Smiley), whom Whitehead recognises as the colleague his master had asked him to apprehend on charges of theft. The job of arresting him becomes trickier when O’Neil insists that it is he who is capturing Whitehead, rather than vice versa. This is the sort of switcheroo that Wheatley pulled in Kill List, in which the ostensible hunters were revealed to be the prey, and Sightseers, which featured a meek pair of caravan enthusiasts whose depths of rage supported a move into the serial-killing business.

As befits a film swathed in mist and murk, A Field in England is more self-consciously obfuscatory. Characters struggle along with us to work out what’s going on. Variations on the line “I’m my own man!” ring out on several occasions as members of the group find their liberty and individual identities inhibited by the sinister O’Neil, who commandeers them – especially Whitehead, whom he makes his slave – in a search for buried treasure. Late in the film, this is interrupted by a group freak-out on magic mushrooms. Consistent with the folk-horror aesthetic this may be. But it feels more indicative of a desire to show off a new box of editing tricks or to provide an optical digression from the earthy (and earthly) images of white skies slanted over rough-hewn landscapes. (The movie’s greatest asset is the clean, monochrome cinematography by Laurie Rose.)

This is a film fumbling for meaning along with its protagonists. Lines such as “This country is at the end of something” or the brutal O’Neil assuring the spiritual Whitehead that “We’re two halves of the same man” suggest vague stabs towards thematic consistency. Martin Pavey’s sound design is suitably oppressive and occasional moments hint at a grubby poetry, especially the scenes involving the innocent cooper (Richard Glover) who tells Whitehead: “You’re a wise sort. You think about a thing before you touch it.” But a director on his fourth movie should be aspiring to make more than just a showreel for his personal fan club.

Richard Glover and Peter Ferdinando in "A Field in England".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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