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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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

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 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories