Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Mystic Albion

SIGHTSEERS (2012)
A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

"A man with a ginger face and an angry woman." Comedians Steve Oram and Alice Lowe wrote - and star in - SIGHTSEERS.

DIRECTED by Ben Wheatley, SIGHTSEERS is a jet-black comedy that merges NUTS IN MAY with an anorak NATURAL BORN KILLERS. Thirtysomething Tina (Alice Lowe) - suffering from guilt over the death of her dog Poppy by knitting needle - embarks on a north-country caravan holiday with new boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram), despite reservations from her neurotic mother Carol (Eileen Davies). Introducing Tina to his "world," the break takes in Crich Tramway Village, Keswick Pencil Museum, Kimberley Stones and the Ribblehead Viaduct. However, Chris' overtly strict rules and class resentments result in a number of brutal killings, and Tina herself turns feral, which includes pushing Martin (Richard Glover) and his beloved mini-caravan invention - the Carapod - off a cliff. When the couple burn their caravan and ascend the Viaduct in a suicide pact, at the last moment Tina lets go of Chris's hand as he falls to his death alone.

SIGHTSEERS blends that favourite strand of British comedy - the comedy of humiliation - with our wondrous environment that we too readily dismiss of exploring because of the bloody weather. As we follow Chris and Tina, wildness grows as the world opens up from their suburban strait-jackets. Among this landscape-based coming of age story the two leads are effortlessly naturalistic, and Laurie Rose's widescreen photography fully captures the depth and wonder of the countryside, but there are too few laugh-out-loud moments and developing ideas, particularly for a film which has had such a long gestation period. The killings are of comedy-sketch stereotypes: a litterbug oaf, a drunk bride-to-be, snooty walkers and ramblers ("I never thought about murdering an innocent person like that before") and a cyclist all perish during the running time, as Chris eloquently notes on his nerdy BONNIE AND CLYDE set-up that he only wants "to be feared and respected - that's not too much to ask for from life, is it?"


A FIELD IN ENGLAND is the latest in a long line of films that aim to tap into the mysteries and dark forces of the English environment. The field is a character itself, an ethereal and disorientating space cinematically similar to the windswept marshes of Kaneto Shindo's celebrated ONIBABA.

Wheatley's following film - A FIELD IN ENGLAND - is a weird and wonderful Civil War art-horror which was simultaneously released in cinemas, on DVD, on Freeview and VoD. It has a spectral Englishness that evokes the dying loyalty of WITCHFINDER GENERAL and the seeping arcania present in BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW. Here, Rose's monochrome photography echoes Peter Watkin's CULLODEN, especially in the opening chaotic skirmish, where Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) escapes from battle and is soon joined by deserters Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and Friend (Richard Clover). When Cutler (Ryan Pope) appears, he leads the three into a large field encircled by mushrooms. Here we meet alchemist O'Neil (Michael Smiley), of whom Whitehead identifies as the man he has been pursuing for having stolen manuscripts from his master, a black magician in Norfolk. When O'Neil reveals that there is a hidden treasure in the field, Whitehead is led to O'Neil's ramshackle tent and - after a prolonged bout of screaming - emerges roped and in an eerie, hypnotic trance...

The simultaneous release ploy - previously tried to a lesser extent by horrors THE EVIL DEAD and MUM & DAD - perhaps is the future, but particularly suits this picture as its genre-mashing doesn't fit anywhereA FIELD IN ENGLAND is filled with authentic dialogue and a tiredness towards conflict and God ("I know what God is punishing us for ... for everything"); indeed, the Civil War is merely a hook for the smoke and mists, and the picture plays out like a road movie, where the developing friendships are more important than the end result. Even the supernatural undertones of runic stones, magic mirrors and mushroom circles are left without explanation. Instead the viewer is in an otherworldly landscape ("There are only shadows here") where the characters may have all been killed on the battlefield (inexplicably, Friend is even resurrected later on), or that Whitehead hallucinates the situation, either by eating magic mushrooms or suffering concussion. 

Hunter turned hunted: Reece Shearsmith plays A FIELD IN ENGLAND's Whitehead in this impressively haunting trip into the English psyche.

Greatly benefiting from his time with THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, Shearsmith makes for an engaging sorcerer's apprentice, while Clover gives a vague performance as the underling Friend, who provides the film with its most humourous lines; after being shot, he urges his comrades to tell his wife that he hates her, and also inform of his repeated carnal activity with her sister. Another example of black humour is a scene that reminds of the squalor of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL ("Dennis, there's some lovely filth down here") where Whitehead - using that staple of British horror the magnifying glass - inspects Jacob's penis after his genitals were stung during an emergency shit. And the psychedelic trip sequence - as Whitehead sees a black planet slowly engulf the sky, amid blurring and interconnected images of faces, trees and O'Neil's swirlingly sinister cloak - is spellbinding.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Dawn of the Doctor

AN ADVENTURE IN SPACE AND TIME (2013)

William Hartnell's Doctor Who - played by David Bradley - among a Dalek, Cyberman and Menoptera, in this promotional image.

WRITTEN by Mark Gatiss, this nostalgic drama made to celebrate DOCTOR WHO's 50th anniversary reveals how the show was nearly exterminated after just four episodes. On the 22nd November 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, plunging the world into deep mourning; the following day the Time Lord debuted at its Saturday tea time slot between GRANDSTAND and JUKE BOX JURY, and even viewers in the mood for such escapist entertainment couldn't necessarily tune in because a power cut blacked out parts of Britain. But there were also tensions behind the scenes; the BBC Head of Drama, Canadian Sydney Newman, ordered the first episode to be totally re-shot to make it more child-friendly, and his decision to assign the BBC's first female producer to the venture - partygoer Verity Lambert - caused frictions between the stuffy crew (though Lambert forged an alliance with young Indian director Waris Hussein). Syphoned off to the depths of Lime Grove Studio D, the team struggled to make the crudest of facilities - and the oldest of cameras - work in their favour. Even Doctor Who himself, William Hartnell, was an aging, grumpy, heavy drinker and smoker, yet he formed a close bond with Lambert, turning around the show's fortunes which was ignited by the introduction of the Daleks (which, in itself, went against Newman's instructions for "no bug-eyed monsters.")

In this docudrama, Verity (Jessica Raine) initially struggles to impress Newman (Brian Cox) with her handling of the project, but eventually wins him over with a new-found brutality and verve, standing by Hartnell (David Bradley) as he struggles with the scientific scripts and the realisation that his film star credentials are now being played out on a children's show. When Hartnell's health declines and his memory is affected, the actor becomes even more frustratingly angry and disorientated, forcing Newman to re-cast the lead role fortuitously creating the notion of regeneration (Patrick Troughton is played by Reece Shearsmith in a Three Stooges wig). One wonders that if Hartnell's health had not deteriorated with arteriosclerosis, the legacy of DOCTOR WHO would have been cancelled after five years or so without the notion of regenerated ever having to be considered.

Daleks over Westminster Bridge; an iconic recreation
from THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH.

The professional Hartnell/Lambert relationship is at the heart of AN ADVENTURE IN SPACE AND TIME, but this ninety-minute love letter to the past is too fractured and obvious, dialogue-dropping worn facts into a strained sentimentality. Feelings and situations are portrayed like snapshots from a photo comic strip, breezing through the First Doctor's tenure like a fanboys' wish list. And as AN ADVENTURE IN SPACE AND TIME seemingly grinds to its digest-friendly halt, a real gut punch is delivered. There is a moment when Hartnell activates the TARDIS and then, looking across, he sees The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) lovingly caressing the console. This silent, poignant interchange says much about Hartnell’s place in the ever-evolving DOCTOR WHO canon.