Writer’s blog, Week 10, Tuesday

Blog4Mar14a Happy birthday, Bobby Womack. It’s traditional for me to say that on my birthday. It’s my birthday. I’m still, miraculously, in my 40s, and found a single grey hair in one of my eyebrows the other day which I have yet to pluck expertly out for visual continuity. I feel OK, thanks. My eyesight is not as sharp as it was last year when I tried to avoid seeing the Oscar winners on breakfast news while I was on the treadmill in the gym (planning to watch the whole ceremony, as live, during the day) – what I’m saying is: it was a little bit easier to do so yesterday.

Clearly, I am giving myself the day off. (It was a close-run thing last night when I was called up at the last moment to spend at least part of today in the offices of a Shoreditch-based production company where I’m helping another writer storyline the second series of her sitcom, but I was stood down about an hour later, so the day is back to being my own again.) Even when you’re self-employed, as I have been now since I was 32, you have the moral right to give yourself the day off without written warning, especially when you’ve been routinely working weekends since Christmas. I am going to see a gay film.

It seems, momentarily, to have stopped raining, which is a plus. And there are two baby sparrows in the back garden, hopping optimistically about. I have delivered a workable draft of Drama A, as I am calling it, so the waiting game begins. Torture, in other words. Meanwhile, what I shall herewith name Sitcom A (as the previous Sitcom A has been rejected by the BBC, so this one moves up to most-likely-to position) seems to be enjoying a shot in the arm, in the form of interest from a performer who might consider taking the lead role, which will really raise its game when we request a “table read” as a way of impressing upon its potential commissioning editor that he should commission it. We already have a fine cast assembled, but the lead pulled out, and the replacement is a much bigger name, so maybe it was for the best.

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Not that anybody really cares, but of the eight main Oscar categories I was forced to predict for Radio Times, alongside my teen-cinephile hero Barry Norman (another annual tradition), I got half right. The one I wished I’d got right was Best Adapted Screenplay for Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope for Philomena, which went to John Ridley for 12 Years A Slave. I enjoyed watching the whole extravaganza play out in “real time” during the day yesterday, with coffee and chocolate. I’ve been measuring out my life in Oscar ceremonies since I was that young teenager, steered into film appreciation by the BBC’s Film programme and not just Barry, but a string of replacements they put into his swivel chair in – I think – 1981: Ian Johnstone, Michael Wood among them. I’ve taken films seriously ever since.

I had a two-page feature printed in the Guardian yesterday about TV medical documentaries. I’m very proud of it. You can read it here. It’s proper, and a nice little marker flag on my CV: first two-page feature in G2. Like Matthew McConaughey says, if you make yourself in ten years’ time your hero today, you will never attain the position of “hero” but it will always give you someone to aim for. I’m definitely not the “hero” of myself in 2004, so maybe his crackpot, God-fearing theory holds some water.

Film 2013: great beauty

Michael Smiley in Ben Wheatley's A Field in England.beyond_the_hillsSpring+Breakersthe-great-beauty2Frances-Hagravity-cuaronBlue-is-the-Warmest-Colorblackfishbig i-wish

As I write, it’s not quite yet the very end of the year, but my records indicate that I have seen 153 films in 2013 – that is, 153 films I’ve never seen before (which includes films I’ve seen but never before seen on the big screen, such as Manhattan, Aguirre Wrath Of God and Chinatown). Of those 153, 122 have been films released in 2013. If I were an actual film critic, I’d be seeing around seven a week. But I’m not one. So I’m calling 153 a decent tally. But never mind the width, feel the quality.

Here are my Top 30 in order. I’ve eschewed qualitative ordering in my entries for TV, books and albums, but I feel more confident about films as I log them as I go, and enter a star symbol next to any that stand out from the pack. This makes it easier to sift them. Frankly, the Top 10 rose effortlessly to the top, but the next 20 confirm that it was a damn good year.

1. The Great Beauty | Paolo Sorrentino | Italy
2. All Is Lost | JC Chandor | US
3. Gravity | Alfonso Cuarón | US/UK
4. Blackfish | Gabriela Cowperthwaite | US
5. Compliance | Craig Zobel | US
6. Beyond The Hills | Cristian Mungiu | Romania
7. I Wish | Hirokazu Koreeda | Japan
8. Spring Breakers | Harmony Korine | US
9. Blue Is The Warmest Colour | Abdellatif Kechiche | France
10. Frances Ha | Noah Baumbach | US

11. Mea Maxima Culpa | Alex Gibney | US
12. Silence | Pat Collins | Ireland
13. Lincoln | Steven Spielberg | US
14. Nebraska | Alexander Payne | US
15. Made Of Stone | Shane Meadows | UK
16. A Field In England | Ben Wheatley | UK
17. Mud | Jeff Nichol | US
18. The Selfish Giant | Clio Barnard | UK
19. Shell | Scott Graham | UK
20. No | Pablo Larrain | Chile
21. Zero Dark Thirty | Kathryn Bigelow | US
22. Captain Philips | Paul Greengrass | US
23. Parkland | Peter Landesman | US
24. Blue Jasmine | Woody Allen | US
25. Prisoners | Denis Villeneuve | US
26. What Richard Did | Lenny Abrahamson | Ireland
27. Stories We Tell | Sarah Polley | Canada
28. The Place Beyond The Pines | Derek Cianfrance | US
29. In The Fog | Sergei Loznitsa | Russia
30. A Hijacking | Tobias Lindholm | Denmark

Some thoughts. Four documentaries in the Top 30 (and one in the Top 10) says something powerful about the continued relevance of non-fiction. (The Act Of Killing topped many a critic’s poll in Sight & Sound; for me, it was a unique film, but not one I actually enjoyed.) And two Irish films in the Top 10, too, which has to be a first, and a welcome one. I note that only half my Top 30 are American, which feels like a significant victory for “the rest of the world” as Hollywood accountants call it – although I only did a Top 20 last year and less than half were American, so who knows? On a geographical note, Gravity is apparently “British” enough to qualify for a British Bafta nomination in 2014, as it was shot here and Alfonso Cuarón has dual UK citizenship.

For the record, the following films also received a star under my yes-or-no rating system this year, so they merit an honourable mention. More documentaries, and two more Irish films!

Beware Of Mr Baker | Jay Bulger | UK
Django Unchained | Quentin Tarantino | US
This Is 40 | Judd Apatow | US
For Ellen | So Yong Kim | US
The Spirit of ’45 | Ken Loach | UK
Arbitrage | Nicholas Garecki | US
Reality | Matteo Garrone | Italy/France
Neighbouring Sounds | Kleber Mendonça Filho | Brazil
Good Vibrations | Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn | Ireland
The Gatekeepers | Dror Moreh | Israel/France/Germany/Belgium
Spike Island | Mat Whitecross | UK
The Look Of Love | Michael Winterbottom | UK
Easy Money | Daniél Espinosa | Sweden
Behind The Candelabra | Steven Soderbergh | US
The World’s End | Edgar Wright | UK
Before Midnight | Richard Linklater | US
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa | Declan Lowney | UK
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks | Alex Gibney | US
The Deep | Baltasar Kormákur | Iceland
Fire In The Night: The Piper Alpha Disaster | Antony Wonke | UK
Hawking | Stephen Finnigan | UK
Oblivion | Joseph Kosinski | US
What Maisie Knew | Scott McGhee, David Siegel | US
Mister John | Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor | Ireland/Singapore
Leviathan | Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel | US

A final postscript: I didn’t get to see Philomena this year, which leaves an obvious gap as I suspect I will like it.

Blue movie

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There are three distinct reasons why Blue Is The Warmest Colour threatens to be an uncomfortable watch. One, it’s a film about a lesbian relationship. If you are a heterosexual male – and I am not the first to entertain this taboo thought – discomfort might extend from a feeling of being unfairly judged by others for choosing to go and sit in a darkened auditorium to see two young actresses pretend to fall in love, because of the common heterosexual fascination with lesbian relations. I’m self-aware when it comes to my feelings about sex, which are frankly prudish and distorted by a deep sense of guilt about the “male gaze” and institutionalised sexism; and this makes me ill at ease around porn. You’ll know that the thumbnail sketch of Blue Is The Warmest Colour since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes is predicated on its explicit same-sex sex scenes.

Which brings me onto the second reason for discomfort: Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, who won the combined acting prize at Cannes for their lead roles in the film, are on record complaining about the “horrible” way they were treated by director Abdellatif Kechiche. To be fair, this assessment was as much about the emotional demands of the roles as it was the gruelling sex scenes, but they did state that they’d never work with him again. It’s not easy to know that when you watch the film.

The third reason for trepidation was, for me, perhaps the most pressing. The film is 179 minutes long. It’s had rave reviews, mostly four- and five-star ratings, so it was vital that I saw it, but the prospect of sitting still for three hours was daunting whatever the subject matter. (When a three-hour film is compelling, such as the Romanian film Aurora a couple of years ago, it’s amazing to be able to lose yourself in it. If it’s a stinker, it’s an ordeal.)

Well, I steeled myself on all three counts yesterday and saw Blue Is The Warmest Colour and the first thing I want to say is: the three hours fly by. Clearly, it’s not a porn film and never was going to be, and although the couple’s first bedroom exploration – for the younger girl, Adele (played by Exarchopoulos) it’s her maiden Sapphic experience; the elder, Emma (Seydoux) is a seasoned “out” lesbian – goes on for a full and frank ten minutes, it’s both narratively and artistically justified. The build-up has been slow and gradual, and it explodes with pent-up feeling and, yes, love. The camera by definition exerts a “male gaze” – there’s a man behind it, and one whose tactics were “horrible” – but you are able to lose yourself in the story. It’s all about the story.

Onscreen sex has been getting more and more explicit for years in any case, and not just in foreign movies – think of Michael Winterbottom’s Nine Songs, or the English-speaking Intimacy – but at least in all of these cases, it’s a long way from Hollywood sex, that glossy, soft-focus, blue-filtered, slo-mo pantomime. The sex in Blue Is The Warmest Colour is corporeal, and sweaty, and urgent. There’s no saxophone, is what I’m trying to say.  The Hollywood kind is way more embarrassing. I’m not a lesbian, and I have never seen real lesbian sex, so I’ve no idea if lesbians smack each others’ arses as much as the couple of Blue Is The Warmest Colour, but it seemed a little excessive.

Moving on from those ten minutes to the other 169 minutes, what’s compelling and moving about the film is the acting. The two leads are definitely fearless for those ten minutes – especially as we know that scene took days to shoot – and deserve our respect and admiration. But the emotional ups and downs are even more demanding, and both, but especially Exarchopoulos (only 19 at the time), rise to the challenge. Utterly convincing. Kechiche’s technique of always framing their faces so they fill the screen, gives us access to some very clever acting. Adele changes a lot over the course of the story, as she has further to grow up, and she effects these changes subtly; she leaves school, takes a job as a classroom assistant, then teaches “first-graders”, and you can see her maturing as this takes place.

The story, partly based on a graphic novel of the same name, is a love story, but it’s also a film about peer pressure, expectation, nature versus nurture (both sets of parents are brilliantly essayed, but it is Emma’s, the more free-spirited and bourgeois, who create the little conservative, ultimately) and betrayal. It also touches on the buzz phrase “sexual liquidity”. Adele starts out as a heterosexual, seemingly finds her true sexual calling, then prevaricates. I’m sure this is common.

It’s not perfect. The colour blue is played heavy handedly. The scenes in the classroom where literature is dissected fall a little too neatly into the themes of the action. But overall, Blue is a seriously well-played saga that never drags. You could cut the sex scenes, or scenes, down to a minute or two and it wouldn’t detract from the story. But there they are. (The second, shorter one, feels hugely indulgent; it doesn’t move the story forward one iota. But I would say that.)

Not seen as many French films in 2013 as I usually do of a year – In The House, Something In The Air – but Blue Is The Warmest Colour reminds me of why I should remedy that. Perhaps it’s the familiarity of the language. Or simply the aspirational nature of French life: bread, cheese, philosophy, really intelligent seeming kids. (Positive enough stereotype for you?) In my lists, France seems to have been edged out by superior works from Germany, Romania, Argentina, Russia, Denmark, Ireland and Italy. Not that it’s a race. Except it is.

A writer called Nick Dastoor wrote a very pertinent, honest and funny piece in the Guardian called A Single Man’s Guide to Seeing Blue Is The Warmest Colour. (They should have added “Heterosexual” to the headline.) I was fortunate enough not to have to sit in the darkened auditorium yesterday afternoon alone, but I know exactly where he’s coming from. (Don’t go below the line, though, I warn you. Seriously. Don’t.)

 

The Abbey habit

TA121grabThere’s only one show in town this week on Telly Addict, and it’s the one about the big house in Yorkshire with the servants and masters and Labrador. Downton on ITV dominates, but there’s drama, too, from The Fried Chicken Shop on C4, Peaky Blinders on BBC2 and Whitechapel on ITV; plus, a glorious BBC4 history of soundtracks, Sound Of Cinema with Neil Brand, and a bafflingly-scheduled new sitcom on BBC1, Father Figure, which I would have loved as a kid.

The future’s blight

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Dystopia: I want to go to there. I have a real soft spot for dystopian visions of the future, or of the parallel present. Who wouldn’t? Utopia is clearly never going to happen. And if it does it’ll be based on credit, which never lasts. As a general rule – and I’m basing this on sci-fi films rather than sci-fi novels, as I’ve hardly read any – if things look bright in any given future, then things are about to go very badly wrong. Look at Logan’s Run. Or Westworld. Or The Island. Or Metropolis. Or, right now, look at Elysium at the cinema, or Oblivion on DVD.

Elysium first. Out on 21 August, it’s the hotly-anticipated follow-up to South African Neill Blomkamp’s sleeper hit District 9, which was also dystopian, in that it allegorised apartheid by way of a lower caste of aliens, disparagingly known as “prawns” and kept in a Johannesburg township by the administrative human master race. With a much bigger Hollywood budget to play with, it’s interesting that Blomkamp has stayed within his discomfort zone and created another sun-baked dustbowl shanty world, this time Los Angeles in a future when the earth has become largely uninhabitable; meanwhile, the 1% – as they are not called – are safely ensconsed in a revolving space station designed like an architect’s brochure of luxury gated living. (Star-gated, if you will.)

As a bleak and arid vision, Blomkamp’s is clever, as it accentuates divides already in place in our own unequal society: the poor are getting poorer, and the filthy rich filthier and richer. Elysium, the ultimate rich person’s retreat, even hangs in the air, visible to the majority who can never afford to zip up there in a little spaceship. (It’s fascinating, too, that in Oblivion – another exhausted earth, this time wasted by war, and with its oceans being industrially sucked up to create energy – a controlling space station, the pyramid-shaped Tet, also hangs in the air. I think I’m right in saying that, in both films, a spaceship ride to both Elysium and Tet is a 20-minute hop.)

Matt Damon is the everyprole in Elysium; he knows that the 1% get to lie in special pods that cure all known diseases, which is why he so wants to get up there; on this, the story hinges. We want him to get there; we identify with the 99%. In this sense, as with District 9, it’s a socialist film. The proletariat are always the heroes in dystopias, the workers who rise up. Maybe this is why I like these films so much; even though they have a musclebound hero (and Damon is pumped up to the point of looking like Stretch Armstrong), which cleaves to the old right-wing Reaganite 80s action-hero orthodoxy of one man saving the world – without help from Big Government, right? – they usually lead the downtrodden to a better world. I won’t say whether he does it or not, as that would be a spoiler. But you’ll root for him in a film that’s actually more interesting as a concept than as a film, as in the third act, it follows one too many sci-fi action presets.

Oh, and corporate America is the bad guy, once again. This happens a lot, and almost suggests that such films are not made by corporate America. (To be fair, Blomkamp’s is a co-production with money coming from Canada, Mexico and South Africa, as well as the US.)

Oblivion is also a thoughtful film, and with less metallic, Transformers-style action to bog it down and make it feel generic. Adapted from his own apparently unpublished graphic novel by writer-director Joseph Kosinski, it really is a like a graphic novel on the screen, with stunning production design, and gorgeous vistas, albeit ones set on a sucked-dry earth, awaiting the final departure of the last few humans. The race is not unsatisfactorily represented by Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough’s seemingly perfect couple, who live in a giant iPad on a stick above a scorched earth that looks like Iceland, where much of it was evocatively filmed, with CGI bits of recognisable New York sticking out of the top of it, recalling Planet Of The Apes, of course.

It’s hard to go into too much plot detail, partly because there are a number of key structural and temporal twists, and partly because it’s way too complicated. The story is well told, and Melissa Leo is key, even if her character only appears in a tiny screen on Riseborough’s touch-screen coffee table, as she represents the smiling face of authority up on the aforementioned Tet. Again, it speaks of our own time, as in flashbacks we see New York as it once was, and shows how fragile “civilisation” is. It’s more sombre than Elysium. Things get blown up, and shots are fired, but the more memorable scenes are quieter, more existential, and set in landscapes that seem to go on forever. Unlike Elysium, there’s not much city.

Although Cruise and Riseborough are frankly beautiful and serene, they are still the everyproles, technicians working on mankind’s final exit and maintaining robot drones, which protect and serve, with firepower. (Oh yes, it’s a short thematic hop to Obama and his unmanned weaponry in those drones, surely, especially as this is post-war.)

Nobody wants our own future, or near-future, to pan out like Elysium or Oblivion, with all-out war or all-out profligacy laying waste to the planet, even if some of the gadgets look nifty. You can keep those. Me? I feel trapped enough by the dystopian present. Especially on days when I feel like I already live in a one-party state, where the totalitarian government holds ordinary people in contempt and would willingly wipe a whole caste out if it thought it could get away with it in the media.

I recommend both films (Oblivion, the longer of the two at just over two hours, is out on DVD on 19 August), especially if you’re a connoisseur of futures that are so blighted, you’ve got to wear protective suits.

Geek ending

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Honestly, you wait ages for a male-bonding apocalypse comedy, and then two come along at once, like computer-animated ant fables, Truman Capote biopics or volcano-based disaster movies. Except Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s This Is The End wasn’t the end of the world. The World’s End is.

I’ve been so looking forward to sharing my thoughts about the third and final part in Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright’s audacious Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy – completing the set with Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz – ever since I saw the first 45 minutes of it, at an exclusive preview in mid-May. (We signed a press embargo when we saw the whole thing last Wednesday, but this apparently lifted last night when Variety went live, and all the other reviews crashed in behind them.)

Because the film’s release date was “pulled forward”, to use the impenetrable industry jargon, by a month, there has been a certain amount of frenzied activity behind the scenes at The World’s End as it was readied for public consumption, which is why selected journalists with long lead-times were treated to the weirdest screening ever: the first half of a film. (It was even introduced by Edgar.) In it, Pegg’s boorish Gary, the hedonistic goth who refused to grow up and is first seen in rehab, gets the old gang back together to stage a second attempt, 20 years on, at their old hometown’s “Golden Mile” 12-hostelry pub crawl. (The town is Newton Haven, played by two “garden cities”, Letchworth and Welwyn, which join Crouch End and Wells in Somerset on the Cornetto map.)

The gang – who have all inconveniently grown up in the interim and view the developmentally arrested Gary as something of a necessary irritant – are played by regulars Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan, and a finer bunch of British avengers you could not hope to assemble. (Rafe Spall and Julia Deakin also have small parts, which means they have been in all three films, along with Pegg, Frost and Freeman.) In those first 45 minutes, we get a keenly observed and deeply self-critical portrait of misspent adulthood, which does Pegg, Frost and Wright – all essentially huddled around the big four-oh – proud.

Wright is still haunted by a crawl he never completed in his youth, and his own nostalgia and self-examination seem to fuel the story – as well as provide the soundtrack of iconic early-90s indie-dance-crossover tunes that are not heard in films as often as, say, 60s beat hits, or mid-90s Britpop. (When the lads groove to the Soup Dragons’ I’m Free in Gary’s car, it’s all good, clean, I ♥ The 90s fun until he reveals that not only is this the same compilation cassette from 20 years ago, it’s also the same car. For this, he is regarded as comically tragic by the others. But who doesn’t cling to simpler times?)

When I interviewed the trio last Tuesday in Claridge’s I still hadn’t seen the second half of the film we were there to discuss. This would ordinarily be intolerable – the height of film studio arrogance and cheek. But hey, it really was not quite finished yet. We all saw it on Wednesday. For those of us who’d seen the first 45 minutes – which ended with the first clue that all was not of this earth in Newton Haven – it was odd to see the run-up again, but, like all of their best work, it’s worth repeating, and in fact matures.

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It’s a terrific film, confident, silly, warm and surprising, and a worthy finale to an insane, parochial cinematic adventure. Don’t worry: I won’t tell you anything key about the plot, or where the third Cornetto comes in, or reveal a couple of well-kept casting secrets, as it’s not out until next week. Pegg, Frost and Wright were being extra careful last Tuesday, mouthing names to each other, and playing a guessing game about an extra audio detail Wright had inserted into the final sound mix. When you set this much store by details, metatextuality, in-jokes, paybacks and cross-references, it’s important to handle them with care. The title – and the trailer – are pretty explicit about the apocalyptic end-point, but not the getting there, other than it involves hand to hand combat, at one juncture with pub stools for weapons. It also gives away a sight gag that refers back to Shaun and Hot Fuzz, although knowing about it does not subtract from the glee of seeing it.

My admiration for the work Pegg, Frost and Wright do as a fighting unit – and although Wright is very definitely the director, and Pegg and Wright credited with the script, it’s clear Frost is closely consulted throughout – is very high. To adapt the fanboy fun of Spaced to work across a broad canvas, not to mention sell it to the Americans, has been one of the more heartwarming successes of British cinema in the 21st century. (The support they’ve had from Working Title and Universal, as well as Big Talk, is key, too, but these guys are the ones with the ideas and the pre-midlife crises to draw on.)

This geek ending is final in every sense. It’s bigger and costlier than the previous two films, but as good rather than better. To have kept their end up, to the end, is reward enough. I always enjoy seeing Pegg and Frost in other stuff, and Wright will easily adapt to a Hollywood career if he wishes it, but there’s nothing to beat the three of them in a room together, and you have to hope they’ll reunite through a cosmic need to do so, rather than a financial imperative.

Having met the clubbable Pegg and Frost during press for Hot Fuzz, and struck a surprising seam of mutual admiration with Pegg (ie. he’d read my books, which had been given to him by a mutual Northampton-based friend, Tony Kirkland, with whom I co-starred in a Weston Favell Upper School production of Macbeth in 1983), I was lucky enough to reflect in the collective glory of the whole Spaced gang at a BFI reunion day in November 2007, where I first met Edgar and crossed that Rubicon where we might actually say hello in the street. They’ve all been kind to me ever since whenever our paths have crossed, and Simon gave me a cover quote for my non-selling third memoir, which I still treasure: “Fucking hilarious.” As is often the case when you meet cool people professionally, you start out as a fan, gain their trust, and became something slightly less needy. (But remain a fan.) Here’s me unable to hide my enjoyment onstage at NFT1.

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I’ve read all the reviews that went up last night. Most critics have been impressed by the scale; which is to say, the bigness of the sci-fi half, but also the intimacy of the first, without which the second half would just be big. Even when things are credibly sci-fi, they remain just as credibly real, thanks to the chemistry of Pegg and Frost first and foremost, but among the other cast, too. One or two have said it’s too long at 109 minutes, but I found that even when the big stuff hits a plateau of destruction, it’s always cleverly undercut by the matey and often foul-mouthed dialogue. That comes from practice, I’d say. I could watch it again now, and that would mean seeing the first 45 minutes for the third time.

The World’s End is released next Friday, July 19, and if you are fond of the other two films and the sitcom from whence they came, you’ll be first through the doors, and you won’t want to leave at last orders. This Is The End is still on general release. Let’s Boo-Boo.

In a field of its own

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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.