Alan Morrison on
A Field In England
Screenplay Amy Jump
Direction Ben Wheatley
Cinematography Laurie Rose
(Film4 5/7/2013 multi-platform release)
Hallucinations in Lace Collars
It might have a somewhat underwhelming title with a faint echo of Rupert Brooke’s iconic trope from his poem ‘The Soldier’ (‘If I should die, think only this of me;/ That there's some corner of a foreign field/ That is forever England’), but Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England, grittily shot in chiaroscuro by Laurie Rose in more than a hint of homage to Ingmar Bergman’s exemplary cinematographer Sven Nykvist, is far from just another quaint historical outing for the US-bound export market. It is, in terms of ominous atmosphere, brooding tone and, particularly, cinematography, much more of an ‘art house’ production –but is almost entirely of interest in such technical and compositional respects, as well as its atmospheric evocation of the gun-smoked aftermath of a bloody skirmish in the English Civil War, and brilliant attention to costume detail, which lends more than the usual verisimilitude of felt authenticity. This visual authenticity is also complemented by some sporadic snatches of dialogue alluding to the various pills, potions and ointments composed –with pinches of superstitious ‘wish’-craft, ‘magical thinking’, scrying, divinations and general quackery– seemingly at random by seventeenth century apothecaries for various plagues and agues of the time –the time being almost exactly two hundred years before the foundation of the National Health Service; and, broadcast for the first time on Film 4 while simultaneously debuting in cinemas and DVD, on 5 July 2013, eve of the Tory-neutered NHS’s 65th anniversary, one is left to wonder whether the timing is some sort of unconscious national sublimation for the more pressing issue of our own time.
Just how unique, singular or original Laurie Rose’s exceptional cinematography really is, is open to debate among those who will quickly spot what could be defined as riffs from some fairly obvious foreshadowers. The wide sunlit monochrome skies skudding with striations of cloud call immediately to mind Sven Nykvist’s startlingly stark tonal work for Ingmar Bergman’s more landscaped outings (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and Through a Glass Darkly spring to mind). While the slightly documentary-style use of hand-held camera and, of course, the particular historical period, instantly draw comparisons with Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s equally low-budget and all-location Winstanley (1975), also shot in stark black and white –although, curiously, Wheatley and Rose have divulged a debt to another leftfield director of the Sixties and Seventies –and very much the progenitor to Brownlow and Mollo– Peter Watkins, in particular his gritty black and white documentary-style historical re-enactment, Culloden (1964) (Watkins also made The War Game (b&w, 1965) and the painterly, exceptionally intense Norwegian-produced film Edvard Munch (1976), the expressionistic use of colour of which is strongly reminiscent of Sven Nykvist’s on Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1973)).
It is not clear whether Wheatley and Rose have actually seen Brownlow and Mollo’s Winstanley, but one suspects they might have done, given the similarities in style and setting, and is perhaps the most appropriate work with which to compare Wheatley’s film. Winstanley depicted, for this writer, the far more sublime, beguiling and historically-specific story of the experiment in common land-sharing of the proto-communist Diggers movement, the eponymous leading light of whom is quoted almost verbatim from his contemporaneous writings (albeit via David Caute’s novel Comrade Jacob). And it is in the narrative –and scriptural– paradigm that A Field In England fails to impress to anywhere near the degree that, for instance, Winstanley does, or, for that matter, Caryl Churchill’s as-yet-un-filmed play about the Diggers, A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, staged the year after aforementioned film (1976). Both Brownlow/Mollo/Caute’s film and Churchill’s play are also written in the authentic parlance and diction of the period they mutually recreate; though naturally Winstanley, entirely scripted from the eponymous Digger pamphleteer’s own writings, is the most verbally authentic.
Amy Jump’s script broadly bypasses attempts at dialogical authenticity by lifting the verbal embargo normally imposed on such atmospherically and visually evocative productions, allowing her picaresque crop of characters –deserters Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and Cutler (Ryan Pope), 'idiot savant' (Richard Glover), incongruously witty and effete alchemist Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) and satanic magician O’Neill (Michael Smiley)– the full throttle of expletive-driven modern day patois, replete (in the case of Jacob, Cutler and their anonymous ‘friend’, with Cockney/estuary accents. For this writer, this seems an attempt to pointlessly accommodate the less historically oriented of modern viewers, which feels particularly out-of-place in a film which is otherwise taking such pains to recreate a real time and place rather than simply projecting a backdrop. Would, for instance, even the most coarse-tongued and viscerally-minded of 17th century brigands have injected the word “Fuck” into practically every single sentence they uttered, even if the situation these characters are in isn’t too complementary to gentler verbiage? The collective Tourette’s Syndrome of the rougher protagonists aside, there is also a very visceral, scatological focus on bodily functions: only a few minutes into the film one of the brigands announces he is going to “take a shit”, and we then witness him screaming out, as if in agony (indeed, we later discover he suffers from hemorrhoids), as he attempts to dispatch a stool at excruciating length, while squatting in a patch of nettles (“COME ON!” he shouts at one point, and one of his comrades shouts back at him, “Is it a boy or a girl?”).
The class differences between Whitehead –who is, however, a ‘kept man’, raised from poverty to be apprentice to an alchemist who perceived a spark of promise in him– and his three commoner companions, are played on well, providing both the most nuanced pieces of dialogue –Whitehead: “Some would say knowledge is its own payment” (and this ‘knowledge’ is later cited again as the true “treasure” buried somewhere in the field, which O’Neill enslaves the men to dig for)– as well as some of the funniest (and reminding this writer of a similar use of class-based, culture-clash banter by Lee Hall in The Pitman Painters). Whitehead's 'gentleman among rogues' status is partly emphasized by Jump's attempts to imbue, almost uniquely, his own dialogue with some of the cadence and syntactical characteristics peculiar to the period (and expletive-free), as well as sartorially (he is in lace collars and cuffs while the other deserters are in the plainer and less refined garb). One of the most affecting lines is when Glover's more simple-hearted character remarks on Whitehead’s smooth white hands, which, to him, indicate their owner is a man who is careful about what he picks up. As mentioned, the scripting for Whitehead provides some faint adumbrations of the Shakespeare comedy, especially in a scene when he investigates the infected nether regions of one of the brigands (perhaps inevitably starting out with an uncompromisingly head-on shot of a warty penis), listing with excellent if ill-fitting comic timing the legion ailments afflicting them, including venereal disease, scrotal inflammation and haemerrhoids –in terms of direction and delivery, this scene is perhaps more Blackadder than As You Like It.
But unfortunately such periodic flourishes of more thoughtful dialogue are few and far between in Jump’s script, while the swearing is prolific –indeed, saturates whole swatches of dialogue at times; and an apparently dying commoner’s soliloquy on his having “had” his sister-in-law on many occasions “from behind” (followed by allusion to the rear end of a “sow”) seems not only misplaced but needlessly prurient given that the trope is, so we think at that moment, the speaker’s last words. This writer is aware that he may be coming across as a bit prudish by this point, but there’s something about a felt shoehorning-in of very ‘colourful’ sexual references, especially if phrased in anachronistic modern day vernacular, that always niggles at him in period dramas; something about it feels scripturally cheap and populist. That said, Jump’s script is still some cuts above the standard period soap pulp of most contemporary costume dramas (the latest culprit of which being of course The White Queen, one of a long line of historical travesties stretching back through The Tudors, Desperate Romantics to ’Enry the Aiff –though Ray Winstone’s gravel-toned Cockney locution is paid tribute to here by the equally stubbly Pope and Ferdinando).
The narrative itself might have been set in many other historical periods and has little in it specific to this particular period –bar the little known ‘fact’ cited by Wheatley that at this time “People were grinding mushrooms into dust and blowing it into people’s faces and then doing magic tricks”; and though efforts are made in the script to emphasize Whitehead’s air of trembling, God-fearing trepidation, such religious angst sits oddly with an alchemist clearly well-practised in the occult arts, which would have been seen as complete heresy at the time, particularly to the Puritans (who made up much of the Parliamentarian side from whose ranks he has clambered mid-skirmish). The vicissitude of the eponymous ‘Field’ being strewn with crops of magic mushrooms, which the protagonists duly ingest some way into the film –though for no readily apparent reason, unless I missed something (one reviewer has suggested the stew they all eat near the beginning of the film has been made from some of the mushrooms) – is an intriguing one, albeit, again, coloured by what one suspects is the writer’s unhelpful preoccupation with drawing in a more youthful, or ‘recreationally experimental’, audience. Apart from some interesting cinematographic gymnastics, the gorging on hallucinogenic mushrooms (or toadstools) doesn’t seem to add an awful lot to the plot; moreover, the visualised perceptual effects from the offending fungi, nicely composed though they are, are lessened in impact due to the gradual slide into phantasmagorical imagery prior to their consumption. Close-ups of the distinctly phallic-looking funguses recalls the earlier shot of one of the brigand’s diseased-ridden penis –but it almost comes across as if the narrative purpose of the band of deserters suddenly going out to phantasmagorical graze as mushroom-chomping ruminants is more as a prompt for the director to try out some rather peripheral camera experiments.
One particularly strange and disturbing scene involves Whitehead staggering out of O’Neill’s tent after a minute’s worth of blood-curdling screaming from within, with a rope tied to his neck like a lead; this is a protracted slow-motion shot reminiscent of the dreamlike eerieness of some sequences in David Lynch's early films. Cue next a series of disorienting sequences during which he gallops about the field as if following a scent like a dog, his roped neck tugging O’Neill and the others behind him. This is a quite unsettling, surreal and vertiginously directed sequence which reminds this writer of some of the earlier pictures by Roman Polanski. The edgy, doom-laden musical score by Jim Williams complements the film’s morose atmosphere extremely well, and it’s refreshing to hear an anachronistic contrast of both rustic-sounding acoustic and contemporary synthesiser (which in itself is a sort of retro-approach harking back to some of the historical pictures of the Eighties, such as The Bounty), while the inclusion of period song is a nice authentic touch.
Ultimately, having witnessed the brigands’ rather slow, protracted and gory mutual dispatching (which comes across at times as a kind of Shallow Grave with lace collars), including O’Neill shooting his henchman through the head, the pistol lodged deep into his mouth in a sort of fellatio symbolism, blood and fragments of skulls being seen exploding from his scalp, and Whitehead finally throwing his gentlemanly scruples to the winds (a la Straw Dogs style) and blasting a pistol shot through the back of O’Neill’s head, half his face exploding forth in the process, we witness Whitehead returning to the skirmish from whence he originally fled, presumably on a kind of pilgrimage of repentance for his cowardice, only to stagger through the gunsmoke to be greeted by his three former companions, standing side by side, neatly clothed, staring at their confused witness –and then black out.
Something about this final shot has much less of the eerie, ghostly quality of the faintly supernatural denouement it is probably intended to project, and much more of the gritty symbolic machismo of the final gunfight in Sam Pekinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Even the poster for this film, with five rugged male silhouettes, four of whom are in wide-brimmed hats and holding weapons, has a slightly Pekinpah or Spaghetti Western (a la Sergio Leone) look to it –and again is indicative of a contra-aesthetic preoccupation with trying to appeal to populist taste in spite of the actual film’s texturally uncompromising patina of visual and atmospheric authenticity.
Arguably there has never really been a definitive film or television serial of the English Civil War and its many variegated and profound religious, political and social upheavals –to some extent, one thinks of recommending Gerard Winstanley’s tracts, the transcription of the Putney Debates, or one of Marxist historian Christopher Hill’s many books on the period, or F.D. Dow’s excellent and compendiously thin-spined Radicalism in the English Revolution, for a taste of the true drama and turbulence of the time. In literature, there have mostly only been rather second-rate adventure stories set during or in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, most famously Frederick Maryat’s very Victorian, Cavalier-centric romance Children of the New Forest (1847), a prime example of such pseudo-historical dampness; that story appeared to be part-inspired by William Frederick Yeames’ famous painting And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1878), which depicted a small Royalist boy stood on a stool being interrogated by a lugubrious committee of Puritans –it was made into a Seventies children’s series which this writer vaguely remembers watching on first broadcast but has not seen since.
In the Fifties and Sixties there was a thin string of Civil War-set films, from vacuous Cavalier-focused swashbucklers such as The Moonraker (1958), Hammer’s The Crimson Blade (1964), the Hammer-esque Witchfinder General (1968), and the partially successful/authentic biopic Cromwell (1970); then in 2003 came the more gritty and visually evocative To Kill A King –the unlikely casting of an incongruously short-haired Tim Roth as Cromwell actually working much better than one might have expected, and perhaps a touch more authentically than Richard Harris’s blond-mopped glowering version of 1970, while Rupert Everett’s Charles I was a worthy if more forgettable portrayal than Alec Guinness’s definitively stuttering performance. But none of these pictures comes close to the very tangible sense of the period, both visually, atmospherically and scripturally, of Brownlow and Mollo’s masterpiece-sans-fanfare Winstanley, which remains, to this writer’s mind, the most important and memorable of all depictions of the period.
For those who hunger a more lengthy, character-driven and comprehensive saga set before, during and after the English Civil War, which takes in the full dialectical swathe of what is now referred to as ‘The English Revolution’, you could do a lot worse than watching the almost forgotten television serial By The Sword Divided (1983 and 1985), which, among other notable performances (from such classical actors as Julian Glover, Robert Stephens and Gareth Thomas, aka Blake of Blake’s 7, as a particularly sympathetic Roundhead Colonel), features perhaps the two most authentic portrayals of key players Charles I (played brilliantly by aristocratically faced Jeremy Clyde) and Cromwell (a warts-and-all Peter Jeffrey). The first series is a touch too preoccupied with the largely Royalist Lacy family; but by its end we have the emergence of The Levellers, prefiguring a grittier and more Parliamentarian-primed second series, which incorporates the trial and execution of Charles I, the puritanical reign of Oliver Cromwell, the escape of Charles II, and the Royalist retributions of the Reformation.
Although not particularly ambitious stylistically speaking, By The Sword Divided is, for this writer, a far more satisfactory and didactic dramatisation of the period compared to the enormous disappointment that was The Devil’s Whore (2008): wonderfully shot though it was, with some meticulous attention to period detail –although the authentically reconstructed 17th century manor house looked slightly out-of-place on the South African veldt location!– this particular serial promised much more than it delivered, and in the end, delivered very little of either dramatic or historical substance. Given, Dominic West’s turn as Cromwell was fairly credible, and the inclusion of Levellers Edward Sexby and Thomas Rainsborough, a refreshingly left-field detail, but the rather misplaced and pointless incorporation of a phalli-centric demon a la magical realism, a thumping metaphorical leitmotiv throughout, plus another gruff and glowering performance from John Simm, all combined to undermine any dashes of historical verisimilitude otherwise evident –such as the beautifully shot scenes of the Diggers tilling their arid land, which served more as an almost Pre-Raphaelite-coloured postcard backdrop to the sublime movement in the complete absence of any actual exposition or exploration of the motivations and ideals of the Diggers themselves. Compared to the damp squib of The Devil’s Whore, A Field In England is certainly of more significance historically, cinematographically and scripturally. But if Jump’s script had attempted to root itself more firmly and resolutely into the period, with a more uncompromising focus on a historically specific theme of that time –as, for example, Chris Newby’s equally chiaroscuro and Bergmanesque Anchoress did in 1993– then the finished result would have had more lasting impact.
But, in the end, A Field In England is mostly exceptional for its striking and imaginative cinematography and imagery, and less so for its actual writing. That’s not to say Amy Jump’s script doesn’t have its moments of ingenuity, even poetry, and is, in spite of its stylistic patchiness and abundance of anachronistic curses, far more thoughtful and philosophical than the average contemporary period fare. All taken together, this moody experimental work certainly bodes some promise for a more leftfield tilt to future British historical filmmaking, but in and of itself, is likely to be remembered more for its visual than narrative impression, and in that, will no doubt be canonised into Film Studies courses in time, and, on technical grounds, rightly so. But to this writer –a long-standing amateur scholar of this historical period, particularly of the Levellers and Diggers– A Field In England is an opportunity missed: with a script as historically forensic as the visual attention to period detail, perhaps dovetailing between the ‘magic mushroom’ episodes and intertwined hallucinogen-induced epiphanies of a group of Diggers or Millenarians as to a then-envisaged true Christendom to be reined over by Christ himself, a ‘Light Shining’ over the land, would have made for far more profound and period-specific exposition and –together with the first rate cinematography– might have made this film a true masterpiece, rather than just a cinematographic curiosity.
Alan Morrison © 2013