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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Pokémon Gone: why the summer’s most popular app lost over 12 million users in a month

Four ex-players of Niantic's record-breaking game explain why they stopped trying to Catch ’Em All. 

Drowzees. That’s the short answer. The tapir-like psychic Pokémon wiggles its short trunk and stubby yellow fingers all across the land, meaning anyone on a mission to Catch ’Em All inevitably encounters hundreds of the critters. Wherever you go, whatever you do, they are waiting. They are watching. And they are part of the reason the biggest US mobile game ever has lost 12 million users in a month.

According to a report by Bloomberg, based on data from Axiom Capital Management, Niantic's Pokémon Go has seen a rapid decline in the number of users and user engagement. The game has dropped from nearly 45 million players in July to just over 30 million now.

Of course, like Team Rocket in a hot air balloon over Cerulean city, Pokémon Go had a long way to fall. After the initial frenzy and hype, it makes sense that the next set of headlines about the game would be exposing a decreased number of downloads and active users. No one can keep up chart-topping and revenue-grossing world records forever. But why has it faced such a steep and rapid decline?

The most common answer is that it was all a fad. Brenda Wong, a 23-year-old social media manager from London explains this is why she stopped using the game. “Like most fads, the interest slowly died over time. Life caught up with me and I started playing less and less,” she says. “Maybe it's sad that I now prioritise saving my battery over hatching an Ekans. Maybe.”

This partially explains the decline, but it isn't the whole story. Another argument is that the app is buggy, but considering it managed to maintain its popularity after multiple server crashes in July, that doesn't hold up either. Sure, Pokémon Go is being constantly updated and yes, it does drain your battery – but these aren’t the fundamental issues with the app. The fundamental issue is this: the game just isn’t very good.

Feeling drowzy

This is where the Drowzees come in. Although there are a 150 Pokémon to catch, most users end up catching the same species over and over, as there simply isn’t a wide enough range commonly available (hence any memes you might have seen about Pidgeys and Rattatas). The other main aspect of the app, battling in gyms, has no real endgame and gameplay is mostly aimless.

“I don't have the patience to wade through all the crap Pokémon that are everywhere in order to eventually hope to find something I don't already have,” says Alex Vissaridis, a 26-year-old graphic designer from London.

“I used to play Pokémon Go pretty religiously. I used the App Store hack to get it from the US store before it was released in the UK. I'd turn it on as soon as I'd leave home in the morning. I'd go on PokéWalks by myself, too, around the local area. I swear I've played it when I'm supposed to be out with friends, you know, socialising. The novelty's worn off now, though.”

Vissaridis’ complaints echo those made on one of the largest online communities of Pokémon Go players, reddit.com/r/pokemongo. Despite remaining loyal to the app, the 806,175 Redditors on this forum frequently suggest ways the game could improve, and bemoan its features such as the lack of meaningful player interaction, no daily log-on bonuses, and a lack of other in-game incentives.

“I'm level 21, and once you get to level 20, the XP points you need to level up are astronomical, and where it used to take a day of solid use to go up one or two levels, it now takes about a week or so. I can't be bothered anymore,” says Vissaridis.

These little town blues

For some users, the game is even worse. Pokéstops are locations in the game where players can pick up items and gain points, and they are found at real-world places of significance. This means users in rural areas, where there isn’t a monument or museum every five metres, are at a disadvantage. There are also fewer gyms – the places where you battle – and fewer Pokémon in general.

“I downloaded Pokémon Go the minute it came out in the UK,” says Amy Marsden, a 22-year-old student from Lancashire. “My friends and I would go off on bikes and try to catch Pokémon, which is probably the nerdiest thing I've ever done in my life. In the end, living in a small town was what killed Pokémon Go for me - there are only so many Pidgey and Rattata a person can take before the game just becomes boring.”

It's just a load of Pokéballs

Daniel Jackson, a 25-year-old journalist from Scotland, also became frustrated by the mechanics of the game. “The novelty wore off when I realised how shallow the experience is. There's not very much to do,” he says.

“I think it would be far more interesting if each species lived within a radius that it roamed around, rather than appearing in a location for a set amount of time before vanishing. I think being able to genuinely hunt for them would have been more engaging.

“When my kids were with me over the summer holidays I was able to convince them to get out more. They usually act like they're allergic to grass and air. So although it was a bit of a disappointment I think the concept is sound and that when it's eventually done well, location-based gaming could become an industry in itself. There are so many possibilities.”

The possibilities are indeed endless, and developers Niantic might still redeem themselves and the game in one of their frequent app updates. Despite Pokémon Go's rapid decline, it's also worth remembering that the app still has an incredible 30 million users. As far as mobile marketing goes, Niantic really did Catch ’Em All. Now they just have to figure out how to keep them. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.