In a field of its own

a-field-in-england

We are gathered here today to celebrate what I’m going to have to go out on a critical limb and call “the genius” of Ben Wheatley. I have never met the man – although I’d like to – but his work has given me much to chew on since making his no-budget debut in 2009 with Down Terrace. I’m man enough to admit that I didn’t see this at the time, but the sizzle it created drove me to Kill List in 2011, which sealed the deal. (And I’ve seen Down Terrace since, on the telly, which is herewith significant. This means I have discovered Wheatley in the wrong order, but I plan to atone for that sin.)

A Field In England comes only about seven months after the aggressively marketed release of Sightseers, one of my Top 10 films of 2012. (I put Kill List into my Top 10 of 2011.) How can this be? It’s a faster turnaround than Woody Allen. Well, A Field In England is a little different. It’s not as if Kill List or Sightseers were CGI-dependent blockbusters, but A Field is more like a first feature than a fourth, in that it’s been shot on a shoestring in a single location and has a principal cast of five. (It’s difficult to get hard numbers, but it looks as if this cost £300,000, compared to Kill List‘s £500,000. It doesn’t take a studio accountant’s understanding of the film business to know that this is not very much.)

What’s actually unique about the film isn’t the film, but its release. It made history on Friday when it debuted at selected arthouse cinemas, on DVD, on-demand and, most thrillingly, on free-to-air TV (namely, Film4). I say “thrilling” not just because a film this earthy should by rights be seen terrestrially, but because Freeview is surely the riskiest channel, as it were: it’s tantamount to inviting people to see it for nothing. As a film writer, I am able to see films for free, but often choose to see them at the cinema, where I pay for them, so I hope I haven’t scuppered the experiment by watching it on Film4. Having seen the trailer at the cinema a number of times, I know that Laurie Rose’s black-and-white cinematography is stunning, and merits a larger canvas. (It’s also pretty amazing on a small screen, at once making this 17th century period piece seem old and musty, yet digital-clarity new.)

Michael Smiley in Ben Wheatley's A Field in England.

Even Sightseers, Wheatley’s most accessible film, is challenging viewing. And that’s all to the good. But you’d have to say that A Field is his most “difficult” work, despite feeling more formal in certain ways. It’s not going to be for everyone, and nor, one suspects, is Wheatley (until he sells out and directs an X-Men movie!), and there are moments here that descend, or ascend, into hallucinogenic experimentalism. It’s a history play only in that it cleaves to 17th century-sounding speech patterns and makes a backdrop of the Civil War against which our four deserters embark upon a misadventure into witchcraft.

Reece Shearsmith is impeccable as the scholar on the run from his master, the “coward” who cannot handle weapons who succumbs to the orders of Michael Smiley’s Irish alchemist. If I tell you that the other four men literally drag the talismanic Smiley into the field by pulling on a thick rope, you’ll have to run with it. This field is one from which there is no escape, ringed as it is by a forcefield of magic mushrooms that cannot be crossed. Shearsmith, who at one point seems to fall under Smiley’s spell and becomes a divining rod for buried treasure, is captive of a soldier who believes he can reach a fabled alehouse, but too gets distracted by Smiley’s promise of riches. You may not recognise actors Peter Ferdinando, Ryan Pope and Richard Glover, but you’ll have glimpsed all in various character roles (Ferdinando was in The Mimic; Pope in Ideal, which Wheatley directed; Glover in Sightseers), and all immerse themelves here, looking suitably mud- and shit-stained.

There is violence. There are visions. There is cruelty. There is scatology. There is humour. But how to categorise a film whose visual and thematic reference points – so exhaustively catalogued by Kim Newman in Sound & Sound – range from Peter Watkins’ Culloden to Witchfinder General? What Wheatley and his screenwriting/editing wife Amy Jump have created here is something new. How often does that happen in a medium that sometimes – like pop music – feels exhausted of possibility? I found myself transfixed, not just by the imagery, and the down-and-dirty acting, and the vast leaps between dots that refused to join up, but by the decision to have the actors form still-life tableaux, and by the music from Martin Pavey and Jim Williams, which blended ancient folk song with rumbling unease.

Wheatley’s career does not hinge upon the success of A Field In England, as it’s Film4’s pioneering experiment (or, more specifically, that of its innovative Film4.0 arm), not his, but the collision of one couple’s oddball vision and one company’s equally groundbreaking business plan, strikes me as vital and encouraging. (You know how much the current government hates the arts, except for the bits of the arts it does like? This feels like a bit they won’t ever like, and for that reason, it matters.)

While interviewing Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright last week, we fell into discussion (for self-evident reasons) about films you could watch again and again. I watch a lot of films, and I have long concluded that some films are perfectly good, and not theft of two hours of your life, but at the same time you never need to see them again. Ben Wheatley’s films demand to be seen again.

It’s good to get that down in black and white.

Word of mouth

OK, it’s true, The Artist really is one of the films of the year. (“Film Of The Year!” say the posters.) I saw a preview this morning, at which I felt I was one of only a few critics seeing it for the first time. (Yes, hardened film critics are going back to see if for a second time – that’s how good it is.) Although it was premiered at Cannes in May, and has thus been seen by most of the big film critics, it’s released here on December 30, which is a risky marketing strategy as most things-of-the-year lists have already been compiled, including mine for Radio Times.

It is, in case you are in the dark, a silent movie, about the silent movie era. What an inspired idea. It comes from French director Michel Hazanavicius and is a French film. And yet, it is utterly international, as it has no dialogue. It’s all over the Golden Globe nominations (it was released in the States in November) and it will be subsequently all over the Oscar nominations, and the Baftas, never mind all those critics’ circles awards, and international equivalents. Why has everybody fallen head over heels with a black-and-white movie set in the 1920s and 30s that’s been painstakingly made to look like a movie made in the 1920s and 30s?

Well, there’s the artistry of the exercise. The look and feel of The Artist is utterly convincing. It is postmodern by its very nature – and there are one or two clever, metatextual touches, including an opening sequence in which the main character, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) plays a secret agent who is being tortured in order to make him talk – but on the whole it’s played as a sincere love letter to the silent form, and the silent age. Like Singin’ In The Rain, its rise-and-fall story is rooted in the difficult transition from silent movies to talkies, but it deals with this in a soundless way. With just period music – and one isolated, breathtaking transgression which I will not spoil – The Artist tells its simple story using visuals, “mugging” and traditional title cards (exquisitely rendered, of course).

Both Dujardin and his co-star Bérénice Bejo are delightful. They sing (although we can’t hear them), they dance, and they emote in that melodramatic, silent manner without making it seem false or hokey. There is no layer of irony here. You forget you’re watching a film made in the 21st century. Quite how they’re going to get young people into this film, I do not know. Maybe they won’t. I grew up watching silent movies, and black and white films, on TV as a kid, so have no prejudice against either. But I wonder if I am fortunate in that respect, as I don’t have to acclimatise to watch one on the big screen. People of a younger generation may need to. And may not wish to do so.

It’s sort of impossible to judge this audacious and original film against its contemporaries. I decided that Drive was my favourite film of the year, but you can’t compare it to The Artist. It’s a pointless exercise. This is by far the best silent movie of this year, or any year this century!

I understand Michale Hazanavicius is known for having made a series of French films spoofing the 60s spy genre. I can safely say that this is not a spoof. It is a loving tribute. And impossible not to love back. The critics, or some of them, actually applauded at this morning’s screening. That doesn’t happen. I truly hope that paying cinemagoers will help make it a hit. Not so that everybody starts making silent movies, but so that we broaden our horizons a bit in the digital age.