The one thing that you can say about Ben Wheatley’s latest film is that it will create debate. That is beyond doubt. Everything from it’s multi-platform release to the cinematography to the dialogue, but more than anything else the question will be asked by many. What the hell was that all about? Or in modern parlance WTF?
Set literally in a field in England, possibly in the West Country during The English Civil War, it follows the fortunes of a band of stragglers who leave the field of battle in the deluded hope that there is an alehouse in the vicinity. They soon fall under the spell of a alchemist and his side kick who command them to look for a buried cache of gold hidden somewhere in the field. The field provides the only back drop through out the film, the five men are the only cast and the whole film is shot in black and white. So how far can you go with such a limited cinematic pallet? Well, that depends what you want from the movie.
Whilst being deliberately inexplicable, almost to the point of being allegorical, in it’s plot there is much of merit in the film. Without making any overtly political statements, it takes the ideas of political freedom, religious radicalism and visionary socialism that were at the heart of the war and twists them into a raving, gibbering nightmare scenario, far worse than anything happening beyond the borders of this seemingly tranquil field.
The main struggle of opposing factions is between would be scholar Whitehead and the alchemist O’Neil played by Reece Shearsmith and Michael Smiley who play out the age old master and reluctant servant role, again a nod to the war taking place only on the other side of the hedgerow. The most memorable steps in this dance being when you hear but not see Whitehead being brutalized by O’Neil, reduced to a grinning maniac on a rope to do the alchemists bidding. Not only a memorable turn from Shearsmith but more ghastly and genuinely scary than any of his TV creations as part of The League of Gentlemen.
But whilst you get the odd memorable scene, can revel in the look of the film and discuss its agenda till the cows come home, one big problem for many is that there isn’t really a plot. Yes, you can see what is taking place in front of you, but what does it all mean and where does the film eventually take us. And more importantly why? There is room for everyone to have a theory. Is the field purgatory from which only those that don’t side with the devil-as-alchemist escape? Should we buy into the more fantastic aspects of the film and assume that real magic is at the root of the characters enslavement? Is it all one long drug trip as suggested to the many scenes where people are eating the mushrooms growing in the field? Is it an anti-war statement or maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all.
It is certainly a film that will divide the audience. To some it is baffling, ponderous and too dense in its ideas to be easily processed, yet still the perfect antidote to throw away Hollywood blockbusters and the fuzzy warmth of our own Richard Curtis sanctioned film industry. Others will see it as a master piece of dark historical horror, psychedelic dream sequence and art house opus all rolled into one. Art for arts sake or the future of the British cinema? I really couldn’t tell you.