Ben Wheatley and his wife Amy Jump are my current favourite people in the British film industry. For one they have an encyclopaedic knowledge of British Cinema, for two they maintain an independent budget/ethos despite clear signs of public awareness and probable desire to expand and for three they are some of the only handful of filmmakers who actually believe in a progression of the medium. Of their films, Down Terrace was a no-budget, mob film/family drama hybrid, Kill List was a kitchen sink Hitman Horror and A Field in England is a 70’s hammer horror period drama. You begin to see why I like them…
I will leave aside the strides, leaps and bounds the first two took and the fact Kill List is pretty high up my own list of favourite films ever and focus on the freshly released A Field in England:
Before having even seen a frame it has broken new ground. It is the first ever UK film to be released cross format. DVD, Cinema, TV and On Demand all showed AFIE on the same day, this was ideal for me as I was nowhere near a cinema showing it and I could not afford the DVD or the On Demand download either so I recorded it on Film Four and watched it that way. Twice. This style of release is a long way from going mainstream as it does not suit the studio system and its desire to make fuck loads of money over an extended period of time. But I think that will change. Maybe not soon but eventually. The current model is no longer structurally sound and definitely not future proof, so I think in maybe ten years this will be becoming more the norm for a lot of films, certainly smaller independent films such as this. These points aside, innovation is on display throughout this film.
First and foremost the film is Black and White. The singularly brilliant Director of Photography Laurie Rose whose excellent work I lauded to all and sundry after seeing Kill List, is on the top of toppest form from the first frame of this movie. Shot largely on a RED Epic camera with the odd Canon SLR shots this is fully digital and at no point felt it. A lot of this film could have felt like an extended BBC Play for Today but largely down to its aesthetic choices it far surpasses any expectations someone may have of a TV movie/TV Drama. With botched together lenses and a handheld approach, Rose has a cinematic eye tht is as at home with the sweeping field and surrounding landscapes as it is with the landscapes of human features it continually locks into. Use of digital slo-mo is also the best I have seen in its format (no digital blur or speckling). The palate of B&W is much more engaging also. The eye, being lazy, is drawn to white space within a frame and so much is normally done (in colour) to keep the colours bright but equally quite uniform (how often do you see orange and blue on poster/screen these days?), black and white forces darkness onto the screen and is therefore much more visually arresting. It also means your eye is drawn to shadow creating more dramatic possibilities within the frame. By extension this raises the immersion significantly. For a more visually complex film this would be very very tricky and off putting, for a single location film with a cast of six this makes it infinitely more involving than the constant distraction of the shifting British skies and the possibly altering British landscape. In short, far from being a gimmick, this is a functional and tonally significant first blow.
Much is made of the so called “Trip” sequence at the end which for me is the least ‘weird’ part of the film but certainly the most arresting. The frame splicing, match cutting to faces, cross-cutting, reverses and slow downs/speed ups are all pretty demanding on the eye but not actually as innovative as has perhaps been made out. Similar has been done before (they loved weird, ‘trippy’ shit like this in the 70s) but never to this extent and it is pleasing to see modern digital editing actually being used to its full potential in modern cinema. I’ve said this in analysis before but for all the abilities we now have in cinema there still seems to be a distinctly shallow tool set filmmakers draw from. With a nearly total lack of computer imaging AFIE is still stretching the bounds of technology and audience acceptance thereof with it all being on screen yet without the “a real actor interacting with digital one” bollocks so often touted as being innovation which really isn’t because we perfected it in the 60s with Mary Fucking Poppins. Needless to say whilst the techniques have been there they have never been used to this extent and, in my opinion, to this level of success.
Now to the knottiest question. The criticism continually aimed at the film: “I don’t get it”.
My biggest problem with this argument is it propogates the myth of the ‘Passive Viewer’, i.e. that a film should wash over you to be later dissected (if at all). This is nonsense. No matter how facile the material it will actively engage the viewer even if it is to express contempt. AFIE requires, nay demands, attention to detail and similarly rewards repeated watching. The dialogue is knotty and classical, the editing gets harder and harder to absorb, the plot is incredibly simple, the context is alien to modern audiences, imagery is used in place of explanatory dialogue (due to no explanation being necessary) and, most significantly, narrative is not treated as linear. This, understandably, is confusing but by no means illegible. Its deconstruction for assessment requires an attentiveness and probably a repeated viewing or two. Many films that had similarly hard to follow structures that are now the norm suffered with the same problem. AFIE requires you have information from all points in the film to piece together its (and I’m not being a hipster prick who claims to know better than you) YES simple narrative. We are used to a standard arc and plot progression yet the plot is so simple its almost unnecessary: Deserters from the field of battle are led to a Magician who thinks there is treasure in the field. They dig for it. They find it. Most die. One leaves. End. That’s the plot. The real thing that has thrown so many off is what the IT is. Further compounded by the editing and so on. To be fair it is such an alien landscape it is hard to decipher at first but after another viewing the narrative becomes much clearer, it is the imagery and the subtext that is confrontational and tricky. But I’m going to give it a go.
The Field is England.
Many see the Civil War in England as being the initial birth of modern British society and (I’ll be blunt) the world’s. Constant reference (through imagery and occasional poetical allusion through dialogue) is made to the ideology that Britain is dying and a new one forming in its stead. Whitehead, talking of his prophetic ‘master’ even says of Hell: “We have it”. Characters are riddled with sicknesses, there are class struggles, racial struggles and metaphysical/scientific questions raised by the film through its various imagery. Time loses its straight trajectory as Whitehead is ‘birthed’ through the briar patch at the films opening (first exposure to oxygen as a new born is often described hypothetically as like being stabbed all over with little knives), Whitehead is later seen being ‘birthed’ still attached to the umbilical of an old world magician from a tent. Tableauxs (much vaunted as being the “maddest” part of the film) are used to signify structural imagery at significant points THE WAY THEY DID IT IN THEATRE AT THE TIME OF THE CIVIL WAR (why was that so hard to grasp?). Cinematic tropes appear referencing the future, the camera work of war and western films, modern and traditional folk music is used to further muddy the water. Everything is happening at once.
Look at the black scrying glass. It is explained that using this you can see into the past, present and the future, it is also dropped and cracked thus blurring the three. As when dreaming, everything happens in a rush it is only after we wake we try to piece it together as a narrative. Wounds sustained at the beginning of a dream will often be sustained again later whereas in the dream the likelihood is they happened as part of the same mental process but this is not how we perceive time so we separate them. By the ‘end’ of AFIE old beliefs and ideologies are dead, the future of England/Britain is personified in those three striking figures stood in the field at the very end. There is no real mystery to this plot or its intended message its just the method of delivery has changed and Wheatley and Jump are trying to push out old narrative conventions. In doing so telling a very contemporary modern parable of our times that will hopefully be seen by future viewers as a corner stone of experimental and art-house meeting a mass consumer audience.
In poetry, the form of the poem and its metre should reflect the goings on of the poem itself. AFIE does the same. Its form reflects its message and like poetry it requires more than one reading to really unlock. Also like poetry this meaning comes later, it communicates before it is understood. The initial telling is strange and off putting but like most things worth having, if you can be bothered to persevere and take an active role in the storytelling it is much more rewarding and a much more immersive and expressive method of telling the story and that is A Field in England’s truest innovation and something I hope will catch on.
The Field is England.