Saturday 31 August 2013

A Field in England (UK 2013: Dir Ben Wheatley)

Rather like the ragged troupe in A Field in England who walk away from the smoke and skirmishes of the Civil War in search of safer and quieter climes, I've been hiding away waiting for the critical dust to settle following the film's multi platform release before venturing to commit my opinion of it into cyberspace.

And that critical dust has settled broadly into two heaps. One sees the film as visionary, lysergic, woozy and brave. The other heap cries "Emperor's New Clothes!" and derides it as wilfully obscure, pointless and meandering.

It's certainly the case that compared to Wheatley's previous films A Field in England is decidedly non linear in structure, and a more demanding watch. The director has a reputation for playing with genre and creating new from old - crime and witchcraft in Kill List; the characters of a Mike Leigh play remaking The Honeymoon Killers in Sightseers - but this film resists any easy categorisation. It's a giddy mix of Onibaba, Winstanley, Withnail & IWitchfinder General, and also recalls the increasingly deconstructed narrative of Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio, a film which also offers something complex from an ostensibly simple story.

If you're reading this, chances are you know the story anyway - and if you don't you can read it here. Having watched it three times now, the confusion that greets first viewing about who's who and what they're up to is largely dispelled with familiarity (a friend of mine commented that one of the initial problems is that you're never quite sure how many characters are actually in it, so blurred do their characterisations appear to be). What becomes stronger on subsequent viewings is Amy Jump's script, having a rhythm and cadence which in itself is quite hypnotic, and the strength of the acting. Many have commented on the standout performance of Reece Sheersmith as the whining alchemist's assistant Whitehead, but all the characters are beautifully portrayed, particularly Richard Glover's understated and vulnerable turn as Friend, and the chillingly calculating O'Neill, played by Michael Smiley.

To be honest, I wasn't sure about A Field in England on first viewing. But it really does repay a second visit, although it doesn't become less strange, just more, well, coherent and beautiful - as if you're watching something familiar yet terribly unfamiliar at the same time. If anything, I now find the closest comparison isn't another film, but the artists who record for the Ghost Box record label. Their collective ambition seems to be to musically recast the customs and institutions of this country into something new and strange and to find some magic in the everyday, which is a fairly good summary of why I now love A Field in England.

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