Smiley’s People

Emma Street explains why Ben Wheatley’s new film is – and isn’t – like The Breakfast Club

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Michael Smiley in A Field In England

Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England was released last Friday across all platforms with the possible exception of kinetoscope. Viewers were offered the option of watching the film at the cinema, on DVD, via digital download or by tuning in to Film4 at 10:45 where the whole thing broadcast without ad breaks.

I dipped my toe in the multiple release formats experience by watching it first on television on Friday night and then seeing it on the big screen on Sunday at the ICA. This showing was followed by a question and answer session with director Ben Wheatley and actor Reece Sheersmith, who stars in the film and is better known as one of the League of Gentlemen. In this session Wheatley discussed how he chose to shoot the film chronologically in order to allow the actors the opportunity to grow with their characters. He also shared his thoughts on the cinematic advantages of shooting in black and white – how it prevents viewers becoming distracted by attractive scenery or costumes and focuses attention on character’s faces. Black and white footage, he says, also highlights dirt and grime.

In which case, he certainly achieved the look he was going for. The images that remain with you after watching A Field In England are the moods, reactions and suffering written on the protagonists’ faces  and the grubby muddiness of their surroundings.

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Yonder stands the sinner: Reece Shearsmith as Neil Young

The film takes place during an unspecified point during the English Civil War. The moment the film begins, we are immediately plunged into the terrifying confusion of the battlefield.  The first few minutes are a riot of shouting and violence with a couple of dead bodies and a literally deafening explosion.

By the time the audience has been afforded a chance to take it all in; the film seems to have settled down into a blackly humorous skit about a rag-tag bunch of deserters skiving off the battlefield in search of a pint.

All walks of life are represented. There is Cutler – possibly a professional soldier, possibly a button manufacturer – played by Ryan Pope. He claims to know the way to an alehouse and is joined by scholar, Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), peasant, Friend (Richard Glover) and criminal, Jacob (Peter Ferdinando). A bit like The Breakfast Club with more floppy hats and shitting in fields.

They don’t get their beer. The film shifts direction again as the characters become caught in the evil machinations of O’Neil (Michael Smiley) an alchemist in search of buried treasure. This is where the film takes a turn for the freakishly trippy.

The entire film is set in one field and the magic mushrooms which grow there play a significant part in the story. Most of the characters are tripping at some point, two may have magical powers and one is probably a psychopath.

The film shows the fractured states of the character’s minds with a series of bizarre images, jump cuts and kaleidoscopic effects. There is a particularly unnerving scene where Whitehead is taken into O’Neil’s tent and we hear several minutes of screams before he emerges tethered by a large rope. His eyes are rolled back and his mouth frozen in a maniacal grin. He walks jerkily: stiff arms and splayed fingers giving the appearance of an animated scarecrow. It’s beautifully shot, genuinely frightening and utterly baffling.  Much like the rest of the film.

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“I’ll be your dog”: the Kia-Ora advert is reenacted by Ben Wheatley and cast

Shearsmith gives a remarkable performance as Whitehead who is tested and ultimately transformed by the events happening to him. He is man completely out of his depth struggling to get control.

O’Neil is by turns genial, bullying and insane. Friend believes him to be the Devil himself, having accepted that they have entered some form of purgatory. “I now know what God is punishing us for,” he says. “Everything.”

The film is literally nightmarish – in that it has that quality that most of my dreams have where you feel you need to get somewhere or away from something but are somehow prevented from doing so. The characters seem trapped like victims in a horror film holed up in a building a sadistic psychopath. Yet it’s only a field and the hedgerows which surround aren’t impenetrable – we saw them crash through several at the beginning of the film. Threats of death, magic and a psychedelic fug engulf the characters making it impossible for them to leave.

The musical score by Jim Williams contributes to the sense of menace. Lutes and dulcimers give way to jarring synthesisers as the characters’ world becomes more unreal and disjointed.

A Field in England raises far more questions than it answers – principal among them being “What the fuck was all that about then?” Religion, magic, war, human nature and the importance of friendship all get thrown in and jumbled around a bit during the film’s satisfyingly compact 90 minute runtime.

Wheatley says of his films that they need to be watched more than once. From my point of view, much as I enjoyed A Field in England, I don’t think I understood it any better the second time than I did the first. I was less bothered about trying to make sense of it, though. Sometimes you need to stop thinking logically and just let the madness unfold.

Emma Street follows a different celebrity fitness workout DVD each week and then mocks it.

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