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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Commons confidential: Comrade Corbyn the coverstar

Milne's messages, Chilcot rumours, and why the Evening Standard may have backed Zac.

Tony Blair’s first flatmate, Charlie Falconer, will find himself in a difficult spot should Jeremy Corbyn stick to his guns when the Chilcot report is published on 6 July. The current Labour leader, a former chair of the Stop the War Coalition, is on record denouncing the campaign in Iraq as an “illegal war” and supporting a war crimes trial for his predecessor-but-two.

Every nudge and leak suggests that Chilcot’s weapon of mass destruction will eviscerate Bomber Blair. The whisper in Westminster is that Baron Falconer might feel honour-bound to quit as shadow justice secretary in the House of Lords should Comrade Corbyn back a plan to send his old housemate to the Hague.

My snout recalled overhearing a conversation in which Falconer’s solicitor wife asked her hubby: “How can you work for a man who thinks Tony is a war criminal?” Please do tell us, Charlie.

Comrade Corbyn is the first Labour leader for many a year, perhaps the first in the history of the class struggle, to be chosen as a cover star by Theory & Struggle, the journal of the Marx Memorial Library. The front-page pose is entirely social-realist by design: the bearded leader is pictured staring purposefully off to the reader’s left – of course. We may be sure that any likeness to an image of Karl Marx on the same page was purely non-coincidental.

An old school chum of the bombastic backbencher Karl McCartney let slip a clue about the source of the Lincoln Tory’s touchiness with regard to his personal brand. Back in 2013, the MP failed to persuade parliamentary authorities to spend £15,000 reprinting his surname on Commons documents, including the Hansard verbatim report of proceedings and business, with a superscript “c” instead of the lower case “Mc” on the line. Perhaps his obsession with presentation dates from when classmates nicknamed him Shergy, after Shergar, the Epsom Derby winner that was stolen and killed 33 years ago. On the upside, equine comparisons never unseated Princess Anne.

Maybe Sadiq Khan’s team, still puzzling over why the London Evening Standard editor, Sarah Sands, endorsed its rival Zac Goldsmith when the Tory was a nailed-on loser, should examine its man’s housing policy. Sands’s purchase of two flats in the redeveloped BBC TV Centre at White City wasn’t exactly the “first dibs” scheme envisaged by the Mayor of London to widen ownership.

Hacks using the Telegram encrypted messaging app, handy for receiving clandestine documents from anxious leakers, were amused to discover that Seumas Milne signed up for the service in May. Corbyn’s spin doctor may be unaware that everybody on the network with his number was notified of the covert arrival.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad