Ben Wheatley – Horrific Humour on the Margins

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David Prendeville takes a look into the viciously funny world of Ben Wheatley.

Ben Wheatley falls into the tradition of great eccentric British directors.  His work resembles not the tasteful prestige cinema of Lean or Minghella, but the strange off-centre work of visionaries such as Michael Powell, Nicolas Roeg or Ken Russell. His films Down Terrace (2009), Kill List (2011), Sightseers (2012) and now A Field in England (2013) show a director who is clearly interested not just in confounding expectations (Kill List is a  domestic drama with shades of Mike Leigh, then a gritty crime thriller, then an out and out horror film; Sightseers starts of as an odd comedy before taking in brutal murders etc.) but also a filmmaker who is clearly interested in and has a distinct philosophy relating to the film form itself. Like filmmakers such as Powell and Roeg, Wheatley utilises all the tools of his medium to make uniquely cinematic experiences. Wheatley is the type of filmmaker that completely undermines Francois Truffaut’s famous line about the terms British and Cinema being incompatible.

Stylistically Wheatley’s films exhibit a string of diverse influences while maintaining individuality. While many people lazily compared Kill List to The Wicker Man or The Witchfinder General, what made the film so interesting was the fact that it merged these influences with that of filmmakers such as David Lynch with its brooding sound design, Gus van Sant’s Elephant in the manner in which the camera frequently follows its characters from behind in a near video-game style, and Michael Haneke with its depiction of violence, particularly the detached brutal take in which Jay smashes the Librarian’s head in with a hammer. This called to mind Majid’s suicide in Cache, with its long-shot and its realistic shock factor. The cult members at the end of the film are also reminiscent of the pagans in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. While A Field in England utilises avant-garde editing in the psychedelic sequences reminiscent of underground cinema and also punctuates its scenes with its cast in tableau reminiscent somewhat of some of Peter Greenaway’s work.

Wheatley has an extraordinary knack for leaving scenes and images imprinted on the viewer’s mind. The aforementioned scene involving Jay and the Librarian in Kill List is an example of this as well as the extraordinary scene in the porn dungeon in which Jay encounters something deeply disturbing on a computer screen, something which is not revealed to the audience but instead conveyed through the deeply disturbing screams emitting from the computer screen, along with a close-up of Jay’s distraught face as he watches on. Another example is the extraordinary scene in A Field in England, in which after minutes of screaming from inside a tent, Whitehead emerges in truly hypnotic slow motion.

Thematically, Wheatley is interested in the merging of the humorous and the horrific. Down Terrace and Sightseers are more blatantly humorous than Kill List and A Field in England, but there exists a similar strange, British sitcom-esque humour running throughout all of the films. One need only take a look at the fact A Field in England‘s cast is made up of television comedy actors such as Reece Shearsmith and Julian Barret to see the importance Wheatley places on having a sense of wit in his work.  This sense of humour is usually distinctly British but it is surreal enough to draw comparisons with Luis Bunuel. Not least in Down Terrace, in which Wheatley expertly avoids falling into Shameless syndrome of indulging in grime and attempting to force humour on it, instead the film works as a bizarre observation piece that manages to be both utterly believable and outlandishly unusual.

A sense of unresolved mystery looms large in his work. Just as we never see what is on the computer screen that disturbs Jay so much, Wheatley’s narratives are open-ended. In keeping with the formal experimentation of his work, Wheatley is more interested in asking questions than resolving them. We are never sure who Jay and Gal are working for in Kill List and how it all links in with the suicide cult at the end of the film. The film is littered with bizarre ambiguities and exchanges. What significance do the offerings Jay believes he receives from his cat have? What exactly happened in Kiev? Why, when Jay pays a visit to the doctor about his infected hand, is he greeted with philosophising on the past and the future? In Sightseers we are greeted with strange dream sequences and a suggestion of witchcraft being at play. This is reinforced in the final scene when Tina lets go of Chris’ hand. Was she a witch as he jokingly suggested? Was the death of her mother’s dog poppy really the result of a bizarre accident involving knitting needles? The open-ended nature of Wheatley’s work is taken even further in A Field in England in which the framework of the British Civil War and a search for treasure is superseded by an emphasis on hallucinatory imagery and strange occurrence. What power does O’ Neill possess? Is the planet that Whitehead sees as a result of hallucinogens or is it real? To look for answers to these questions be to would miss the point. Wheatley eschews meaning in a traditional sense and instead is focused on creating atmosphere in his work.  He utilises mystery, humour, and film-literacy and frames these within a formal approach that emphasises the experiential and visceral potentials of cinema as a medium.

Wheatley stands not only as one of the most promising British filmmakers currently working, but also as one of the most promising and unique filmmakers working in the world today.  While his films have received excellent reviews it is disheartening to note that instead of nominating either Wheatley’s Sightseers or Peter Strickland’s excellent Berberian Sound Studio for Best British Film at the BAFTAs last year, they instead opted for such underwhelming work as Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths. Like Roeg or Russell before him perhaps Wheatley will have to continue working on the margins pleasing the cineaste and being ignored by the more ‘tasteful’ corners. Whatever the case may be, this writer eagerly awaits seeing what lies in store next for this most distinctive of directors working in the cinema today.

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Cinema Review: A Field in England

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DIR: Ben Wheatley, WRI: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley  PRO: Claire Jones, Andrew Starke   DOP: Laurie Rose  ED: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley  DES: Andy Kelly  Cast: Michael Smiley, Julian Barratt, Reece Shearsmith, Peter Ferdinando

 

Somewhere in England there is a field. A terrifying, beautiful field, where the wonders of nature and its darkest horrors collide. In case you’re wondering, it’s in Surrey.

Ben Wheatley, who made the filmgoing world vomit in horror and surprise with his 2011 horror/thriller Kill List, has made quite the name for himself as a director of low-budget, daringly original films. His black comedy Sightseers won plaudits last year, but his latest, A Field in England, is his most triumphant work yet.

Set during the English Civil War, the film follows Whitehead (League of Gentlemen alumnus Reece Shearsmith), an unfortunately named academic charged with tracking down a wayward alchemist named O’Neill (Belfast actor Michael Smiley of Kill List and Spaced fame). When his party becomes cornered during a battle between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads, Whitehead escapes through a large hedge, a veritable rabbit hole in the literary sense, and into ‘the field’.

There he meets a group of three deserters; the bullying Cutler (Ryan Pope), the blunt but decent Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and the Shakespearean fool Friend (Richard Glover), who is apparently too stupid to be killed. The party, lost and bewildered and utterly mismatched, decide to abandon all their goals and head to the pub.

The field, however, is easier entered than exited. Much like Waiting for Godot and similar fictions, you soon realise that the world offstage may not exist at all, and is certainly inaccessible. The field is magic, in its own way, harbouring unseen treasures. A wooden post, carved in runic symbols, when turned opens the doors to this Wonderland still wider.

Soon the formidable O’Neill shows up and using unexplained powers takes command of the group, using Whitehead’s knowledge of ancient books to search for the field’s hidden treasures. O’Neill is happy to stoop to torture to get what he wants. “It does not surprise me that the Devil is an Irishman,” Friend offhandedly remarks.

Shot in startling black and white, A Field in England is an astonishing work, conjuring recollections of many great films without ever feeling unoriginal. O’Neill’s billowing black robe recalls The Seventh Seal, as does the black humour found amongst the peasant characters, but that is as far as that comparison goes. Wind whips through the long grass, bringing to mind Tarkovsky’s Mirror. Often moments freeze in time, as if the characters were posing for an unseen painter – the whole film feels as if Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway had raised a demented child together. And that can only be a good thing.

Laurie Rose’s soft focus nature photography reveals the simple natural beauties of rural Britain, while his close-ups on the character’s mud-caked faces reveal an attention to detail in this £300,000 production that is nothing short of amazing. When O’Neill force-feeds the company magic mushrooms, a kaleidoscopic Stargate opens that brings you through one of the most dizzying and brain-melting film experiences in recent memory. If it’s at all pretentious, at least it commits to it, and then some.

There is so much invention in this film, from a deafening cannonball volley to a simple CGI eclipse created by a disc of dark cloud. Even the opening, a splatter of ferns and drumbeats, drags you by the throat into its period nightmare. It never really lets go.

But it’s in its script that A Field of England truly stands out. Written by Amy Jump, who wrote Kill List, the film features remarkable use of period language while also having a superb sense of mannish banter. Wit drips from the page, such as when the bookish Whitehead excuses his lack of interaction with people, admitting: “I find pages easier to turn than people.”

Wheatley fans may find his latest a little obtuse, although it is far more forthcoming with its drama than some similar mind-bending art films. The typical Wheatley body horror is uncommon in this film, but when it comes is jaw-plungingly effective. A close-up of Jacob’s penis, revealing he has every illness known to science – “except plague” – is as hilarious as it is revolting. While Glover gets all the best lines, it is Smiley who dominates here. O’Neill is one of the most intimidating and disturbing (and disturbingly entertaining) villains to appear in a film for years. While the rest of the cast chew mushrooms, he chews the remainder of the English countryside. It is a sickening delight to behold.

In an ambitious turn by Film 4, A Field in England opens in cinemas today concurrent with its release on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. Even more pioneeringly, the film will be broadcast on Film 4 on the very night of its release. Audiences now have few excuses to miss one of the most startling, disturbing and ambitious films of the year.

David Neary

90 mins

A Field in England is released on 5th July 2013

A Field in England – Official Website

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