A Field in England is not so much a film, more a metaphysical epileptic fit. Its unprecedented multiple opening in Britain – simultaneously in theatres and on DVD, video-on-demand, Blu-Ray and (tonight) TV channel Film4 – suggests the film’s creators think either “Here is a commercial turkey, let’s take the money and run” or “Here is a new epoch of cinema. Everyone gather round.”
I’ll go with the second. This wonderful, bewildering movie from Ben Wheatley, scripted by wife-collaborator Amy Jump (Kill List) and set on a day during the English civil war, has put reviewers at sixes, sevens and any other number you can think of. Try to decode a plot in which a band of deserters, of both sides, stumble into a mushroom-encircled field being surveyed, mysteriously, by a treasure-seeking alchemist. The film begins in violence, ends in violence – a thieves-fall-out climax of multiple shootings – and in between traipses a landscape sown with the surreal, the symbolic, the fantastical.
The rite of entrance into the field is a tug of war with a rope; a rope later leashes Whitehead, the story’s mournful-quizzical buffoon (Reece Shearsmith of TV’s The League of Gentlemen finding fresh shades of dark comedy), as he is sent snuffling for gold or treasure. Umbilical symbol-scape? Sounds it. My theory: A Field in England is about the birth of modern Britain, maybe the modern world. The English civil war was the set-to that preceded and in part precipitated the Enlightenment – that age when the quest for gold and the quest for God both started to become yesterday’s mysticisms – and here is a Prospero-like mage in a desert field (with mushrooms to hand!) practising his arts before a final, fate-coerced abdication.
The black-and-white photography, magically lit and textured, is like the primitive canvas on which the contemporary world starts to be daubed. In one visually astonishing sequence Wheatley melds the characters in quick-fire kaleidoscopic patterns, like a speeded-up version of the old Surrealists’ heads-and-bodies game. Its meaning? Perhaps that every person is everyone else until he becomes himself. (Definition of existentialism.) Likewise – that is surely the din of war planes we hear overhead in one battle scene? – every time is every other time, the present containing the past as memory, the future as potentiation.
A Field in England spins a single moment in history so that it becomes the centrifuge of all history. It is a ridiculously bold, imaginative movie. Its whirring dynamic is as likely to fling audiences outwards in fright or flight as to have them pinned, thrilled and gravity-defiant, to its fun-fair walls. I nominate it as a cult classic right now, with the “cult” disposable in the future at the first stage of canonic lift-off.
“Your aim is no better than your material,” quipped Harold Wilson during a speech, when a rowdy with opposing views hurled a pamphlet at the British PM, missing him by inches. What better verdict on Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring? Her material is the trashy, truth-based antics – given matchingly trashy screen treatment – of the eponymous teenage gang, four girls and one boy, which burgled celebrity homes in Los Angeles between 2008 and 2009. They surfed the web to discover when Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, Lindsay Lohan and Co would be out of town, then crashed their pads and ripped off their gems and finery. (“It’s Balmain! It’s Hervé Léger!”). The media pounced on the opportunity for scandal-sheet glee mixed with smugger-than-thou moralising.
The celebrity culture gets no dopier, nor more depressing. Nor, sad to say, do the sense and sensibility of a once promising director. After Lost in Translation and the sly bubble-headedness of Marie Antoinette (revising the French royal mistress’s IQ downwards and her tragic pathos upwards), we thought Coppola had marked out a subtle screen territory: “This story seems dumb or slight, but isn’t.” Devoid of signature or satirical edge, The Bling Ring seems dumb and slight – and is.
Every stylistic trope is hand-me-down, from the razzmatazz cutting to the “reservoir dolls” shot of our female foursome slo-mo-walking towards the camera down a mean LA street. I half-giggled once, when Emma Watson (late of Harry Potter, now of the Hollywood talent pool) cuts off her mother in the middle of her (Watson’s) Vanity Fair debriefing: “Mum, this is my interview.” Mostly, though, the film confirms that vanity is a delicate, difficult target. Miss it, and you and your artistry seem as vain and misdirected as your material.
Paradise: Faith is another underachieved black comedy/drama. Pick a satirical pincushion; then stick it full of pins. Ulrich Seidl’s praised-by-many “Paradise” trilogy – one gone (Love), one to go (Hope) – hits its meridian with this would-be tragicomedy about a fanatical middle-aged Christian (Maria Hofstätter) devoted to prayer, self-flagellation and, with a group of fellow believers, the attempt to convert all Austria to Catholicism.
For some reason she is married to a Muslim (Nabil Saleh), who for some additional reason is paralysed from the waist down. Once these two get together, Seidl’s film is Fawlty Towers gone Austro-dystopian: a wheelchaired Islamic Basil forever setting his compass for Mecca and a screaming-with-piety, odious-with-sanctity Christian Sybil. I am ready to be first in line when it comes to being rude about religion. But on screen shouldn’t it be done with wit, texture, colour, humanity … ?
They are all present, unexpectedly, in Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s riveting documentary is all about the balaclava’d girls who stormed a Moscow cathedral to sing and dance their loathing of President Putin, church-and-state cosiness and “God shit” in general.
That phrase was invented for their lyrics by one girl’s father, before she was condemned to two years in a penal colony. We witness the sentencing. “We’re back in 1937,” says a protester’s banner outside the court. “This is a show trial,” says the girl, Nadia, who keeps her head high, like her pals, throughout the Kafka-like courtroom farce. The irony increasingly presents itself – an elephant in the room of modern Russia – that the restoration of “freedom” in the former USSR, by re-legitimising the prominence of the Orthodox church, has allowed an ally in authoritarian dogma to return and supply any deficiencies in the notionally more liberal state.
“Take crazy somewhere else,” Jack Nicholson memorably said in As Good As It Gets. The Internship takes it to the Google campus, San Francisco, where former “wedding crashers” Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson hope to con a career as computer nerds. The comedy of scam and flim-flam is very funny for 20 minutes. After that the script is bent like chair bamboo towards the kind of furniture film-goers are presumed to want for their moral and emotional comfort. There is a romance (Rose Byrne); a corny intrigue with a caddish rival (Max Minghella); and much message-mongering about the American dream.