Sunday, July 14, 2013

Review: "A Field in England"

Director: Ben Wheatley
Runtime: 90 minutes

For a film with only one real set (a small tent), Ben Wheatley's A Field in England is filled to the brim with influences (intentional or not). Among them: David Lynch, Sergio Leone, Harold Pinter, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, HBO's Carnivale, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Stalker, and even Shakespeare. Take one look at that list, and it seems like a recipe for the most pretentious sort of train wreck. Instead, A Field in England (Wheatley's fourth film), is far and away the director's most accomplished work. Its visual minimalism becomes a perfect template for dark tale that cryptically withholds explanation in favor of grim and hypnotic sights and sounds.

Appropriately, the opening minutes are the least appealing set. Though Wheatley's actors are much more intelligible than in his grim thriller Kill List, the way he and co-writer Amy Jump thrust one into the situation can be frustrating. Within minutes, we meet the cowardly Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), fleeing a battle during the English Civil War, who then runs into a group of gruff oddballs: Julian Barratt's coarse mercenary, Richard Glover's bumbling squire, and Peter Ferdinando's domineering soldier. As the quartet flees the battlefield to seek an inn, ale, and women, the only period details to speak of are the costumes. Other than that, the actors are largely left wandering through England's lush wheat fields. 

Yet as the first act builds to a close, Wheatley and Jump's script, coupled with the sturdy work from the cast, begins to fall into place. The ornate dialogue produces some flickers of humor, as well as some clever turns of phrase that liven up scenes of men merely wandering through fields. And then Ferdinando's soldier really gets things going by sneaking some rather potent mushrooms into the raggedy clan's soup. Not much later, a man named O'Neill (Michael Smiley) takes over the meandering expedition, and Wheatley begins to drag us down his increasingly surreal rabbit hole. Like the men in the aforementioned Tarkovsky film, the journey's progression across ordinary landscapes soon develops a palpable sense of darkness.

O'Neill's arrival signals the point where those who haven't fallen in sync with the tone and atmosphere will become completely disconnected. As with the works of Lynch, there's often only so much weirdness one can handle before being woken from a film's spell. Much to my surprise, I found myself largely entranced by Wheatley's techniques, rather than frustrated. Even the puzzling interludes, which involve the main characters posing as if in a painting, feel perfectly in line with everything else, even as one struggles to make sense of it all. It's a puzzle, and a vague one a that. However, by keeping his narrative simple (it eventually becomes a treasure-hunt film), Wheatley is free to supercharge his stylistic choices. 

And, to Wheatley's credit, he never leaves his actors in the dust as he turns up the style to full blast. As limited as their backstories are, the characters' personalities come through effectively thanks to the film revolving entirely around their interactions (good, bad, and in-between). Shearsmith, initially somewhat grating, grows into his role. As Whitehead moves from coward to unlikely (and very twisted) hero, Shearsmith emerges as the film's MVP. With his long unkempt hair and dowdy features, he's a perfect fit for the role from his pathetic beginnings, and all the way through his character's unsettling transformation. Smiley, on the other hand, proves an invaluable asset as the film's antagonist. With his imposing demeanor, grizzled looks, and off-kilter face, he brings an understated presence to a role that could have too easily slipped into grandiose villainy. 

Like Smiley's character, A Field in England is all about what it can communicate from the thinnest bits of information. Working with cinematographer Laurie Rose and composer James Williams, Wheatley is able to drive his film home without ever over-doing the technical aspects. Even in the film's most bizarre sequence, brought on by one too many mushrooms and some mind-warping editing by Wheatley and Jump, it manages to stay on course. Similar films (this year's Upstream Color, to name one) often get ahead of themselves as they try to become more abstract and opaque. A Field in England is certainly both of those traits, but in such a way that never loses sight of its simple (yet oh-so-surreal) tale. 

As one figure emerges at the end of the film, confident about where's he's headed, it's hard not to think that this figure is a perfect avatar for Mr. Wheatley. Having gone through ups and downs, he has emerged as a more accomplished filmmaker, one whose uncanny ability to generate atmosphere has finally been paired with a script that benefitted, rather than suffered, from his ever-evolving voice. And to think that all it took was a handful of mushrooms...

Grade: B+

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