Sunday, January 13, 2019

A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

There's some El Topo and some Dead Man and obviously some Peter Watkins in the creative DNA of Ben Wheatley's picture, which seems like the sort of film more likely to have appeared forty years before it actually did. Written by his wife Amy Jump -- the couple collaborated on the editing -- it had a bit of Samuel Beckett flavor at first, in part because of its motley cast of eccentrics wandering through emptiness and in part because the first third of the picture looks very much like a filmed play. Characters mutter and mumble at the edge of an English Civil War battlefield to little purpose, and Wheatley seems clueless, though this was his third feature film, about framing their dialogue to make it dramatic or meaningful. It turns out, of course, that he was saving the bravura visuals for later. Only after the characters gorge themselves on magic mushrooms does it come to life as a movie, though the meaning may well remain unclear for many viewers. Suffice it to say that things get interesting when our protagonists, on little immediately apparent pretense, tug mightily on a rope to disinter a seeming corpse that quickly reasserts its vitality and dominance over the group. This is O'Neill (Michael Smiley), a treasure hunter and an enemy to Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) or to Whitehead's offscreen "master." Whitehead claims authority to place O'Neill under arrest, but his antagonist quickly demonstrates his superiority, "arresting" Whitehead and doing something more, suggestively implicit, in his tent in order to exploit Whitehead's apparent dowsing powers for his own ends. The menials are soon set to digging, but one by one they die of their own violence and the rivalry of the principals, though death is only a temporary setback for some of these characters -- though you may wonder by the end whether the idea was that they -- the characters other than Whitehead or O'Neill -- were dead all along. Don't expect to learn anything about Cromwell or Charles I from this picture, as the setting seems to have been chosen purely for aesthetic purposes, if that's the right word for the blasted locations. Do expect to be impressed by the intensified monochrome cinematography of Laurie Rose in the second half of the picture as it assumes Whitehead's manic or merely intoxicated perspective. You probably can argue that Wheatley and Jump have made an honest effort to recreate the mystic mentality of many in the seventeenth century in their film's more visionary and violent moments. But you probably could also argue that A Field in England is simply a film best appreciated under the influence of the same mushrooms the characters consume with such fervor.