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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage