Wheatley’s World: A Filmmaker in England

Words: DANIEL OWEN
July 29, 2013

As the murder toll increases, with Wheatley’s camera leaving the confined space of the terrace house very rarely, the drama becomes focused on the dynamics of this unusual, but in ways wholly recognisable family. One thing that is notable from this first offering is Wheatley’s use of music, with the drama pausing frequently as Bill (Robin Hill) plays archaic British folk songs that chime closely with the songs we hear from A Field in England’s 17th-century soldiers.


In Ben Wheatley’s England, the countryside is a place where the occult lies, thinly-veiled, behind the façade of a bucolic paradise. In his latest film, written by frequent collaborator and spouse, Amy Jump, Wheatley allows his fascination with British folklore, a fascination that can be identified in each of his three other feature films, to take precedence in this tale of an unlikely band of tripping treasure hunters. Beginning in a council house in Brighton, it is possible to trace the evolution of a certain breed of unscrupulous figures as they set about ascribing their own warped sense of morality onto the world through the filmography of this incredibly productive filmmaker. Wheatley’s characters, in essence, can be found throughout British history manifesting at various times as hit-men in Sheffield, caravan enthusiasts in the Lake District, or, most recently, as renaissance men in A Field in England (2013).

Down Terrace (2009) is Wheatley’s first feature in which he introduced audiences to the convoluted logic that his characters often implement to defend their actions. In this film, the director’s presence is felt in his typically untypical approach to the genre he is about to take on. As such, Down Terrace is a crime film in which not an awful lot of crime takes place; that is, not outside of this circle of supposed gangsters. Opening with the image of a father and son, played by real-life father and son Robert and Robin Hill, leaving court after being acquitted for a crime we are never made fully aware of, the film develops into a character study of this blackly comic troupe of criminals and the paranoia that engulfs them. When this paranoia reaches boiling point the family unit, completed by a magnificent Julia Deakin as the omniscient matriarch, begin to wage war on those close to them before eventually turning on each other. Indeed, the scale of their self-delusion can be determined by the way these characters, after murdering the charismatic Michael Smiley, deem the death to have been selfishly brought on by Smiley’s character himself. As the murder toll increases, with Wheatley’s camera leaving the confined space of the terrace house very rarely, the drama becomes focused on the dynamics of this unusual, but in ways wholly recognisable family. One thing that is notable from this first offering is Wheatley’s use of music, with the drama pausing frequently as Bill (Robin Hill) plays archaic British folk songs that chime closely with the songs we hear from A Field in England’s 17th-century soldiers.

For his second outing, Kill List (2011), Wheatley continues to keep his camera facing toward the British criminal underground that he presents us with in his debut. Where Down Terrace had its grounding in black comedy, however, Kill List introduces us to Wheatley’s distinguishable brand of horror. Whilst comparisons have been made with British horror classics such as The Wicker Man (1973), such analogies only prove partly true. Instead, the film plays out as a triptych of different genres; moving from the close-knit drama of domestic arguments and dinner parties, to the hit-man film draped in realism, before finally dealing in explicit horror made all the more effective by the film’s initial refusal to place its audience in an escapist world where the supernatural is allowed to exist. The result is one of the most intense cinematic experiences you could ask for, with Wheatley’s use of editing and expert handling of the genre allowing him to create a film that, despite including a modern-day cult that harks back to the British folklore, seems entirely plausible and free from artifice. Whereas Hollywood would no-doubt turn such a script into a film that is sold to the viewer as a piece of fantasy, Wheatley creates a film in which the horror seems suited to both the real world and the paganistic days which were thought to be long forgotten. It is a technique which has not been implemented so well since 1999’s Blair Witch Project. Here, however, it is Britain’s dark history and even darker secrets that, in Wheatley’s world, are never too far away from broaching on the present. The result is a very particular and terrifying brand of homemade horror.

Working from a script devised by the film’s stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, with additional material provided by Amy Jump, Sightseers (2012) sees Wheatley combine his love for comedy, one which can be traced through his television career working on shows such as Ideal and The Wrong Door, and his fascination with charismatic murderers. The set-up is entirely British; a pair of lovers set out on a caravanning holiday around the north of England, absorbing the culture of pencil and tramway museums that would drive anybody to mass murder. When the violence does arrive, it is Wheatley’s unflinching directorial style that provides the shock as he refuses to cut his camera away from horrific images in a bid to tap into the YouTube sensibility that he has admitted as being an influence on his filmmaking. The result is a combination of twisted comedy and stark horror that complement each other perfectly and signal once again the ease at which Wheatley is able to shift between different genres. As in Kill List, the vistas of the English countryside prove once more a troubling place in Wheatley’s world. The reason, offered by the auteur in a recent Q&A at Latitude festival, lies in recurring nightmares that he suffered from, born out of an uneasiness induced by the woods near his childhood Essex home. In his latest film, A Field in England, Wheatley traces this uneasiness back to the 17th-century, a time when an entire class of forgotten people roamed the British countryside searching for, according to this film, an interesting combination of friendship and hallucinogens.

A Field in England is a monochrome Civil War film in which you will find no scenes of battle, connecting it quite interestingly with the criminality of Down Terrace. Evoking the godless symbolism of Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, the film is guaranteed to etch many a memorable scene in the mind of the viewer; that is, of course, if one is able to keep hold of it. Warnings before the film begins regarding stroboscopic sequences do little to prepare you for the mind-blowing effects created by Wheatley and Jump’s remarkable editing, especially during the hallucination scenes caused by the consumption of some rather suspect mushrooms. If the countryside has been a place of danger up until this point in Wheatley’s career, it has now transcended that as the field in which this film takes place, reminiscent of Kaneto Shindo’s terrifying Onibaba (1964), becomes very much a character of its own, warping the minds of this already quite twisted group of deserters led by Michael Smiley (Down Terrace, Kill List) and The League of Gentleman’s Reece Shearsmith. One scene that particularly confirms this film’s long-lasting impression on the viewer involves the scholarly Whitehead (Shearsmith) exiting Smiley’s tent, his face painted with one of the most demonically disturbing expressions that horror cinema has to offer. As well as innovative editing, Wheatley also makes use of the avant-garde technique of tableau vivant, capturing his actors in still motion as a means of cementing even further the absurdity of this truly bizarre trip into Britain’s past. Following on from the comparatively commercial Sightseers, the distributors of A Field in England, under Film 4’s newly revealed creative banner Film 4.0, opted to release the film in cinemas, on video-on-demand, on DVD, and on the Film 4 channel all at once; a suitably interesting distribution process for such a bold film as this. What’s more, the film’s executive producer, Anna Higgs, has confirmed that this release strategy has led to an increased amount of awareness that has actually seen more cinemas requesting the film, despite viewers having the option to watch it at home. Quite rightly so, too, as the film’s tagline promises a ‘trip into the past’ which, on the big screen, couldn’t be more vivid if you were in the field with a belly full of mushrooms yourself; which, on the grounds of this film, you want to steer well clear of.

 


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