Thursday 3 November 2016

We Don't Go Back #8: A Field in England (2013)

I've mentioned a couple of times now that folk horror wasn't really a thing before about 2010; since then, filmmakers are deliberately going out of their way to make folk horror movies. But some of the most fascinating examples of folk horror are often films that aren't deliberately confined within that genre, films that try to do something different.

The partnership of director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump is an interesting example of a filmmaking team who know all about Ghost Stories for Christmas and The Blood on Satan's Claw, but who don't so much treat the genres as boundaries within which to play, as much a set of tools with which one tinkers with a film's themes and which one returns to the box if they're not needed. Sometimes even traditional limitations can be themselves tools.

Which is how you get A Field in England.

There will be spoilers, so if you care about seeing it, and haven't, you might want to keep this for later,  since I sort of have to talk about the ending.

The film has six cast members; it has no sets, being filmed in a couple of fields. For all that, though, its strict confines make for a fascinating formal exercise. A film like this can't just rest on its form, of course, and while plot isn't half as vital to the degree that some folks think it is, it still has to say something, do something, mean something.

I'll qualify that. Everything means something. The question is whether it carries a meaning worth interrogating, and when you have a film that is literally just five men in period costume in a field, you're going to have to so something special with that.

It's at some point in the Civil War. Whitehead (Reese Shearsmith, one of the League of Gentlemen), a craven, obsequious man, crawls through a hedge to escape a battle and an angry, murderous soldier who is evidently his boss (Julian Barratt, ubiquitous in TV comedy). With the soldier killed in the first couple of minutes, Whitehead, an alchemist, winds up in the company of cantankerous Jacob, sweet-natured Friend, and cheerfully dishonest Cutler (Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, and Ryan Pope, respectively). Cutler says he knows an alehouse in the next field and the other three men assent, having no better option.
Jacob, Whitehead, Friend.
Halfway there, they come across a carved post in the middle of the field, attached to one end of a rope. Cutler asks them to pull on it, and then, turning nasty, forces them to. They heave so hard it seems the world upends itself, and there, on the other end of the rope, is a man. This is O'Neill (Michael Smiley), a fellow alchemist who it turns out that Whitehead has been looking for, on the orders of a nameless Master from whom O'Neill stole some esoteric papers.
But O'Neill has also been looking for Whitehead, wherever he was (and the film gives no answers), and with Cutler as his armed muscle, he forces the other three to look for treasure, by means both mystic and muddy.

The film freezes from time to time, the cast in tableaux vivants that serve as chapter markers and look like black-and-white Rembrandt paintings.
The camera focuses on each of the frozen figures in turn. 
It ends in bloody violence, but also with transformation; for much of the film, all of the five main characters eat the mushrooms that grow in the field, and their experience of time and self fractures. The sun turns black.

Cut down to mud and earth, the men begin to understand each other. While the film concentrates on how O'Neill brutalises Whitehead (one of the most harrowing scenes involves the men's reactions to the screams that come from O'Neill's tent and how Whitehead emerges), its heart lies with Jacob and Friend, and the friendship that grows between them. Friend particularly holds the key to the film's secrets, and you need to watch Friend from the beginning to unlock the otherwise oblique codes of the film. Quite early on, Friend sings a folk lullaby directly to the camera, "Baloo My Boy," wherein a mother left alone by her husband, who has gone to war, tries to stop her child crying. It ends like this:
I dreamed a dream but yesternight
Thy father slain in foreign fight
He, wounded, stood beside my bed
His blood ran down upon thy head
He spoke no word, but looked on me
Bent low, and gave a kiss to thee!
Baloo, baloo, my darling boy
Thou’rt now alone thy mother’s joy.
It's important that it's Friend who sings this, for what happens to Friend is...

OK. Let's just get it out there. He dies. When he first appears he's unconscious and taken for dead. Then he gets up. Later on, Cutler guns him down. He dies. And later on still he reappears and once again gets gunned down, as is Jacob. And then at the end he and Jacob, just buried, are there to meet Whitehead as he emerges through the hedge. And they stand still together. Over the credits, "Baloo, My Boy," is sung.

Either: the hedge is the barrier between life and the afterlife, and all that has happened, natural or supernatural, exists in a numinous landscape, transactions between ghosts not aware that they're ghosts (the rope is a means to drag a man out of Hell).

Or: Whitehead is tripping on mushrooms so hard he's got no idea who's alive.

Or: It's a story, and this is a final tableau, and stories don't need to make sense.

Or: More than one of the above.

I really like A Field in England. I think it is  maintains the atmosphere of a world that is strange, pagan and earthly, where sores on your parts remain into the afterlife. It's a fleshly, physical ghostworld where God is silent, no matter how dearly Whitehead prays to Christ. This film bleeds pagan blood.
And come to think of it, while I've been calling these films "folk horror" I think perhaps I'd be better served calling the subgenre "pagan film", as it so often steps outside the realms of exploitation horror and into more meditative, symbolic places; Christianity nearly always has a counterpoint in these films, and I've personally picked up on related films that you can't really call horror movies.

Because although A Field in England has horrors, and it does, and the supernatural in some form, I think it's more than a horror film.