The Returned

The Returned
The Returned

Format: DVD

Release date: 22 July 2013

Distributor: Arrow Films

Director: Robin Campillo

Writers: Robin Campillo, Brigitte Tijou

Cast: Géraldine Pailhas, Jonathan Zaccaï, Frédéric Pierrot

Original Title: Les Revenants

France 2004

102 mins

Those with only a fleeting interest in current TV listings would still be hard pressed not to have noticed the groundswell of interest in and (largely) glowing reviews of Channel 4’s new Sunday night supernatural series, The Returned. This slow burning, eight-episode French import posits a scenario in which random, dead ex-residents of a small, isolated town are inexplicably resurrected. With the Z word only mentioned once to date – and the resurrected showing no outward signs of their official post-mortem state – The Returned is focused more on the interpersonal and familial tensions wrought by the situation than it is by the ‘horror’ of it. To coincide with the series’ UK airing, Arrow Films are releasing the original 2004 movie by full-time editor and part-time director Robin Campillo on which the series is based. Originally released under the title Les Revenants (The Returned) in its homeland and as They Came Back on the international market, Campillo’s directorial debut is every bit as engrossing, creepy and atmospheric as its small-screen sibling.

Fans of the TV show worried that watching the movie mid-series might spoil both versions can rest easy, as only the concept of the original survived the transitional process from a feature length to long-form narrative. Though Campillo’s tale is on a wider scale – with some 70 million people worldwide having returned to life, and 13,000 alone in the town in which it is set – the tight focus on the lives (no pun intended) of the dead and those they left behind gives the film an intimate feel, making for a wholly engaging viewing experience more akin to brooding, arthouse human dramas than it is to visceral genre movies.

The Returned eschews histrionics and horror in favour of a studied look at the socio-political implications arising from the sudden return of the dead; do they still have the same rights? Are they entitled to walk back into their old jobs? How do governments – local and national – cope with the sudden extra demands on services and benefits? Issues surrounding grief, loss, love and the passage of time are addressed in an unhurried fashion, as the ‘dead’ and their loved ones try, some successfully, others not so, to adjust to the miraculous turn of events.

The clinical, observational air of The Returned brings to mind Peter Greenaway’s The Falls (1980) and Mick Jackson’s Threads (1984), with their personal stories similarly acting as micro insights into a macrocosmic situation. The Returned drifts along for most of its running time as if in a daze, a tonal, stylistic and aesthetic decision clearly reflective of the physical and mental state of the returned dead – robbed as they are of a sense of being fully ‘in the moment’, somehow alive but ‘concussed’, as one of the doctors charged with helping their reintegration into society observes. Those with mental health issues, dementia sufferers, immigrants and ex-offenders could all be seen as being embodied by the ‘dead’, the space they occupy on the margins of society reflected in the faceless dormitories, sideways glances and openly mistrustful encounters experienced by the titular hordes. However, such is the general ambiguity of the film that whether Campillo intended any metaphoric intent is open to debate. Only in its final act does the film enter into anything resembling a conventional genre narrative, and even then it fundamentally remains an oblique mystery. Controlled, thought provoking and refreshingly elusive, The Returned is a sparse, engaging and stimulating experience.

Neil Mitchell

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Frances Ha

Frances Ha4
Frances Ha

Format: Cinema

Release date: 26 July 2013

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Noah Baumbach

Writers: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig

Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver

USA 2012

86 mins

It all starts with a mobile phone. Frances, a 27-year-old living in New York, points out that her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) has become distracted since getting a ‘cell with emails’. They’re at that age: on the cusp between post-grad optimism and the realities of growing up, and while some (Sophie) are cranking up to professional success and personal fulfilment, others (Frances) are still struggling to get themselves going.

Frances, played by mumblecore darling Greta Gerwig, is a long-term dance understudy. Refreshingly, Frances is what Americans refer to as a bit of a ‘clutz’, masculine of gait and gauche of manners. It is no surprise to the viewer that she is forever the stand-in and never the lead. At the beginning of the film, she splits up with her boyfriend and the ensuing action sees the remainder of her life (primarily her close friendship with Sophie) unravel.

With its New York setting, witty yet flawed female protagonist and concern with the hinterland between youth and adulthood, Frances Ha already appears a lot like Lena Dunham’s Girls, and that’s even before Adam Driver (who stars in the HBO series, as well as Dunham’s earlier film, Tiny Furniture) appears on screen, playing a potential love interest for ‘undateable’ Frances. You may wonder whether it was budget constraints or a nod to Tiny Furniture that caused Frances’s parents to be played by Gerwig’s own parents, just as Dunham’s mother and sister starred as those of her character in Tiny Furniture. The answer is probably both. It most certainly can’t be a coincidence: Gerwig, who co-wrote the film with Noah Baumbach, and Dunham are good friends.

But where Girls is squalid and explicit, Frances Ha is cute and whimsical, thanks in part to its French New Wave influence (it is shot in black and white, has a soundtrack that references Truffaut and indulges Frances with the occasional long tracking shot of her running or dancing through Manhattan). It is also funnier. Where Dunham’s characters might strip off and engage in humiliating sex on camera, Frances simply refers to an ex who could only climax when having sex with her from behind, lamenting the fact that in this position ‘all the important things are covered’.

To challenge the current popular thinking that television has overcome film as the medium with which to tell sophisticated and powerful stories, despite using the same milieu and subject matter as Dunham, Baumbach and Gerwig have created something more joyful and more entertaining than its television counterpart. But they’re lucky. Their film, which has an uplifting if slightly idealised ending, exists in its own finite universe. Girls, which is far more bleak and problematic, is perhaps feted to be so, given that it lives or dies on the vagaries of television commissioners. The mediums have similar backgrounds but, while one is already established in telling stories of this nature, the other is still finding its feet, just like Sophie and Frances.

Lisa Williams

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Dial M for Murder – 3D

Featuring a tense script and superb acting, Dial M for Murder (1954) marked a departure from Hitchcock’s man-on-the-run suspense movies in more ways than one. Faithfully adapted from the successful Broadway play, Hitchcock opened up the action by shooting his legendary marriage and murder thriller in 3D, using the stereoscopic Natural Vision method. Sadly, the format fell out of favour just before the film’s original theatrical release, but thanks to Park Circus, Dial M for Murder – 3D now returns to the big screen in a gorgeous, newly restored and remastered version. Below, Paul O’Connell revisits the Hitchcock classic in 3D, released in selected UK cinemas on 26 July 2013, and available on Blu-ray by Warner Home Video.

Comic Strip Dial M for Murder 3D_1
Comic Strip Dial M for Murder 3D_2
Comic Strip Review by Paul O'Connell
More information on Paul O’Connell can be found here.

Weird Adventures

The Boy Who Turned Yellow

Format: DVD

Release date: 17 June 2013

Distributor: BFI

The Monster of Highgate Ponds

Director:Alberto Cavalcanti

UK 1961, 59 mins

The Boy Who Turned Yellow

Director: Michael Powell

UK 1972, 55 mins

A Hitch in Time

Director: Jan Darnley-Smith

UK 1978, 57 mins

For anyone who spent their childhood in the UK before the 1990s, films produced by the Children’s Film Foundation were a regular feature on kids’ TV; comprising odd, one-off dramas that, when screened amid the hectic modern cartoons of the late 20th century, not to mention gunge-filled game shows and tweenage soaps like Grange Hill, already felt old-fashioned even before the series came to an end in 1985. Perhaps this was due to the not-for-profit basis of the organisation that made them (and government funding via the Eady Levy), or because the company made films specifically for British children (with an assumption of what that audience would enjoy) without pressure from market forces. That said, nostalgia for the range has brought a tear to the eye of many – particularly the generation who grew up in the 1980s and are obsessed with old TV shows and video games – so the 160 films and two dozen serials that the CFF produced have emerged in dribs and drabs over the last few years on DVD.

To rectify this, the BFI have been releasing new themed collections, with three instalments per disc – not particularly generous, considering the 160 available, but better than their former policy of one 45-minute TV show per disc – and Weird Adventures is the third in the range, collecting three sci-fi/fantasy films from the 1960s and 1970s. The earliest, The Monster of Highgate Ponds, has aged the worst of the three. While footage of 1960s London is charming, especially the rarely filmed canals and docks, and the politeness and received pronunciation of the young actors is refreshing, there simply isn’t enough plot to fill the hour-long running time. One scene, for example, where the children encounter circus workers in a pet shop, who state they’re looking for an unusual animal to join their collection, is reasonably entertaining the first time we see it, and forgivable the second, for inattentive young members of the audience who might have nipped to the loo earlier on, but the third iteration of the same scene just seems like lazy, patronising writing.

Direction by Alberto Cavalcanti (Night Mail, 1936 / Went the Day Well?, 1942) is solid, but not quite exciting or lurid enough for a tale about a dinosaur hatching from an egg and taking up residence in the Highgate swimming ponds. Elsewhere, the realisation of the monster via stop-motion animation when young (by Halas and Batchelor, best known for 1954’s Animal Farm), then as a man in a dinosaur suit when full-sized (and pitched halfway between Godzilla, 1955 and Rentaghost, 1976–1984) is pretty good, but the interminable length makes the film a hard slog for modern audiences.

Luckily, the second film in the collection, The Boy Who Turned Yellow, is far more remarkable, not least as the final collaboration by director Michael Powell and writer/producer Emeric Pressburger. A mixture of educational narrative about the sources of power from the National Grid, plus a children’s adventure movie regarding mice lost in the Tower of London, the eponymous description of the lead character’s change in colour creates a heady mix of caper, surrealism and free-form structure that makes the viewer wish Powell and Pressburger had helmed a few more films for the CFF.

Finally, slapstick sci-fi drama A Hitch in Time is probably most memorable for the appearance of former Doctor Who actor Patrick Troughton, playing another eccentric time-machine pilot. However, a terrific antagonist played by TV stalwart Jeff Rawle steals every scene he’s in as a malevolent teacher, with a dozen similar ancestors that a pair of time-travelling kids encounter through the ages. While the direction is somewhat workmanlike due to long-standing CFF director Jan Darnley-Smith being behind the camera, the witty, episodic script by T.E.B. Clarke, writer of Ealing Comedy classics Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), keeps the action going at a steady clip. Although Troughton is ironically underused as the mad professor, his machine anticipates a similar device in Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes (2007) and the historical antics almost seem like a dry run for Time Bandits (1981), which was made only three years after this film.

Like many anthologies, Children’s Film Foundation Volume Three: Weird Adventures is a bit of a mixed bag, but these minor works by great British film directors and writers are certainly worth investigating for cineastes with a curiosity about B-movies aimed at a family audience.

Alex Fitch



Format: Cinema

Release date: 12 July 2013

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Pablo Berger

Writer: Pablo Berger

Inspired by the tale of Snow White from: The Brothers Grimm

Cast: Maribel Verdú, Macarena García, Daniel Giménez Cacho, &#193ngela Molina, Pere Ponce, Sofía Oria

Spain, France 2012

104 mins

The pretty girl with the boyish haircut can’t remember a thing. What’s your name? Nothing. What happened to you? Nothing. She doesn’t know where she comes from, or how she got the marks on her neck. And she clearly has no idea who these tiny men are, who rescued her the night before and now bombard her with unsettling questions. Of course, everyone familiar with the story of Snow White in its many incarnations sort of knows what has happened and where this is going, yet Pablo Berger’s witty, imaginative adaptation is more than just another reciting of the oft-told Brothers Grimm tale.

Shot in beautiful, sharp black and white with no dialogue, Blancanieves pays tribute to the 1920s European silent film era and its connections with theatrical, musical and comical forms. Set in Andalusia during the golden age of bullfighting, Berger’s folktale extravaganza centres around the adorable young Carmen (Macarena García), the daughter of a famous matador who, after a long and painful childhood under the eye of her evil stepmother (Maribel Verdú), escapes from home and finds company in a troupe of wandering, bullfighting dwarfs. Having lost her memory in a fight with the mother’s sidekick, who had orders to kill her, Carmen doesn’t realise where she, or her talent, comes from, as she follows in the footsteps of her father to become a famous matador, but it’s not long before the past catches up with her.

Guided by Kiko de la Rica’s radiant cinematography, Berger spends the first half of the film describing Carmen’s childhood (played as a child by Sofía Oria), leaving plenty of space for moments of wit and humour, while at the same time setting out the close bond between the little girl and her beloved, downcast father (Daniel Giménez Cacho), confined to a wheelchair after he was crippled in the ring and still silently grieving for his first wife, who died when giving birth to their child. Despite the obvious fairytale ambience, the film never compromises the mystical undertone that foreshadows the dark events to come. The second half, which sees Carmen eventually rising to fame in the corrida, first has a lighter feel to it, if only to build up to the tragic final act, in which the stepmother returns to the scene to accomplish her malicious plan.

In addition to the excellent performances throughout, in particular by the two female leads, what also makes this wonderfully grotesque adaptation of the Grimms’ popular fable particularly exciting is the score by Alfonso de Vilallonga, which, if slightly excessive in places, perfectly complements the creepy and dangerous atmosphere of the story.

Blancanieves may be the umpteenth reworking of Snow White, but the film, if you are willing to temporarily suspend disbelief and let yourself be enthralled by its dazzling, silent cinema magic, exhibits a boldness, and the kind of astute, fantastical entertainment, that has become all too rare. For all his command of ambitious and playful narrative ingenuity and apt technical flair, Berger’s study in demonised female vanity and the power of true beauty favours atmosphere over frenzy – and achieves it in striking fashion.

Pamela Jahn

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All Is Lost

All is Lost
All Is Lost

Format: Cinema

Release date: 26 December 2013

Distributor: Universal

Director: J.C. Chandor

Writer: J.C. Chandor

Cast: Robert Redford

USA 2013

106 mins

A man – alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean – wakes to find the hull of his yacht has been breached by a shipping container adrift. The seawater has leaked in and destroyed the electronic equipment the man (Robert Redford) uses to navigate and, more vitally, to pump the water from the boat. Without panic, or fuss, the man disengages his yacht, stops to retrieve his sea anchor and tackle, and then sets about patiently repairing the damage, even as tropical storms brew on the horizon. He will face a struggle for survival in which he will be stripped bare of everything but his stoicism, cunning and ingenuity.

J.C. Chandor’s film at first seems like a complete departure from Margin Call (2011), his financial crisis-dissecting 24-hour drama. In that film, tension is built on talk, as a piece of crucial information is passed steadily upstairs via one explanation after another. However, for all the yada-yada, talk is relatively cheap. Words are used to evade, seduce, cheat and betray. As deadly as silk dipped in arsenic, Jeremy Irons – playing the CEO John Tuld – gives such a persuasive explanation for the crisis to Kevin Spacey that he manages to persuade even the audience, who are still living with the consequences of the greed and irresponsibility of CEOs like him. So in a way, the decision to dispense with dialogue in All is Lost is perhaps more consistent than it at first seems. The unnamed man is obviously wealthy, but he is detached from the world and has some obvious regrets, which grow as his world becomes significantly more elusive. Although this might be a push, his attempt at some kind of ideal of individual freedom is endangered by the invasion of the wild and the free spaces by the corporate. The container spills high-priced, cheaply-made trainers into the indifferent seas. It is this banality that might, in the end, kill him.

The man – unlike Tuld and his ilk – is in a predicament not of his making. His boat is well supplied for every contingency, and what skills the man does not already possess – and he seems to be more than an able seaman – he is willing to learn, pulling down a book on celestial navigation and getting down to some serious study as soon as he has the time. This could well be the performance of Robert Redford’s career. The vanilla-flavoured actor has become increasingly bland and gauzy with age, playing off the memory of better films and, unlike Clint Eastwood or the late Paul Newman, unwilling to accept and play to his age. Even in the forgettable The Company You Keep (2012), he has a crazily young daughter. Here, finally, age becomes part of the character, as the well-kept man slowly falls to pieces under the unrelenting physical struggle, the beating sun, the deprivation and salt water. Redford’s performance is unshowy. His character is lost (and found) in the pains, excitements and pleasures of just doing things. His emotional inner life is expressed by a small gesture, the retrieving of a personal item, a small sign of pique, the sight of him shaving carefully as he awaits a storm that he knows is approaching and might well take his life.

This is an action film in which the actions are all vitally important, unlike most action films in which a law of diminishing returns sees the explosion of the world itself as a ho-hum eventuality. All is Lost is the kind of action film a young Hemingway might have directed, should he have turned his hand to it. It is a small film that is underwritten by the epic nature of life and death and the ocean. Without words, it avoids saying anything: there are no audience surrogates (think Wilson in Cast Away, 2000), no monologues (aside from an opening prologue) and no prayers. And yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, All is Lost is a film that very eloquently provides an argument for the survival of heroes, or at least one hero.

John Bleasdale

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The Brood

The Brood1
The Brood

Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 8 July 2013

Distributor: Second Sight

Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: David Cronenberg

Cast: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle

Canada 1979

92 mins (Blu-ray) / 88 mins (DVD)

This is an excerpt from Kier-La Janisse’s book House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (published by FAB Press, 2012).

Let’s go back to the official definition of hysteria: ‘the bodily expression of unspeakable distress’. In genre films, this is where things get most interesting. In David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), Art Hindle stars as Frank Carveth, the exasperated husband of Nola (Samantha Eggar), a neurotic woman who’s checked herself into the Somafree Institute for experimental therapy with Dr. Hal Raglan (screen titan Oliver Reed, also of The Devils). Raglan, the author of a popular self-help book called The Shape of Rage is the proponent of an unconventional psychotherapeutic method called ‘psychoplasmics’, in which past traumas, when discussed openly, manifest themselves in the form of sores and abrasions on the patient’s body as the trauma is being ‘expelled’. A very literal take on Freud’s ‘talking cure’ through which hysterical patients could be cured by confronting the thing making them ill (which is still the foundation for psychological treatment today), and an exaggeration of common stress-induced hives or rashes, psychoplasmics is nonetheless a dangerous game. Because what Nola is expelling from her body during these sessions aren’t just toxins – they’re repository rage monsters. Faceless children who kill all those who have ever hurt her.

Listen to the podcast of our talk with Kier-La Janisse on House of Psychotic Women here.

While Frank isn’t hoping to reconcile with his estranged wife, he is concerned that her therapy is having a negative emotional effect on their young daughter, Candy, who is becoming increasingly antisocial and despondent following every visit with her mother. After one such visit, Candy comes home with bruises, and Frank becomes more determined to keep the child away from her mother. But, as Dr. Raglan asserts, access to the child is key to Nola’s recuperation, and at that time (1979) awarding sole custody to the father without access to the mother was practically unheard of and not likely to occur in Frank’s favour. The film is notoriously referred to as ‘Cronenberg’s Kramer Vs. Kramer’, and is inspired by his own custody battle with his ex-wife, who joined a religious cult in California and was planning to take their daughter Cassandra with her, before Cronenberg kidnapped the child and got a court order that prevented the ex-wife from taking Cassandra away.

The bonus features on the Blu-ray/DVD include an interview with David Cronenberg about the beginning of his career.

As with many of Cronenberg’s outlandish ideas, carrying them off often comes down to the performance, and Samantha Eggar pulls it off with gusto, equally threatening and oblivious. The therapy sequences in which Raglan draws out her past trauma are as frightening as the film’s more overtly horrific set pieces; reverting to a childhood state, Nola reveals that anger at her husband is not the only thing fuelling her neurosis – beatings by her alcoholic mother have never been addressed. But her real anger is reserved for her father, the parent she loves the most, but who she feels abandoned her at those crucial moments: ‘You shouldn’t have looked away when she hit me. You pretended it wasn’t happening. You looked away… didn’t you love me?’

Kier-La Janisse

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Spider Baby

Spider Baby
Spider Baby

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 17 June 2013

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Jack Hill

Writer: Jack Hill

Cast: Sid Haig, Lon Chaney Jr., Carol Ohmart, Quinn K. Redeker

USA 1968

81 mins

Jack Hill’s uncategorisable cult nasty is part Old Dark House/Addams Family black comedy, part Texas Chainsaw Massacre, before the whole thing winds up somewhere in Eraserhead territory.

In Spider Baby, Hill sets out his stall at the start, bringing on Mantan Moreland, an eye-rolling, black comic actor from the 1940s whose career had taken a hit as soon as the civil rights movement kicked in. Moreland does his trademark spooky-house face, glancing hither and thither – and is then knifed to death by a demented teenager, something that could never have happened back in the days when horror movies played by a safe set of rules…

Equipped with a budget of only $60,000, nearly half of which was paid to star Lon Chaney Jr., Hill approached his first professional, solo directing gig (his filmography is littered with odd part-works, sharing credit with others or receiving no credit at all) with a take-no-prisoners bravado, seemingly hopeful that a movie subtitled ‘The Maddest Story Ever Told’ might get by just on being completely different from anything ever before attempted. Disastrous previews nearly stopped the movie coming out at all.

From its insistent theme tune, sung with gravelly enthusiasm by Chaney himself, to its gleeful embrace of inbreeding and genetic disorder as a plot point, the film is a bad-taste banquet. With little money to spend, Hill nevertheless cast extremely well, with pixie-like Beverly Washburn and baby-faced Jill Banner impressive as two psycho teens whose minds have regressed into infancy – and possibly to a pre-human state; hairless, gash-grinned Sid Haig (a Hill favourite) is a wondrous, appalling sight in his Little Lord Fauntleroy uniform; and Chaney himself enjoys a late-career renaissance in a role that actually treats him with some respect as an actor and a horror icon (all his most famous monster roles are name checked). Years of alcoholism left the lumbering actor looking puffy and leonine about the face, and he’s neither quick on his feet nor with his delivery, but as with Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1939), his finest role, he has material that plays to both his strengths and weaknesses. Forget the likes of Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), as I’m sure Chaney did, and look upon Spider Babyas a final grace note in a long and disorderly career.

The straight characters are fun too, as they rarely were in Corman movies: Carol Ohmart excels as the nasty heir, intent on kicking the freaks out of their decaying mansion, and Quinn K. Redeker is both hilariously square and curiously lovable as the hero. And there’s even something appealing about the more exploitational elements of the flick: the sexual content is limited to the more attractive female cast members running about in their undies. It all seems so innocent.

The limitations of budget and schedule are seen in some inconsistent, but often eerily beautiful, black and white photography, and some quite noticeable sound problems, plus the movie, having set up its premise too hastily, is then required to remain in a holding pattern until the crazed climax. But it’s all so much more inventive, and more good-natured, than a movie shot under the title ‘Cannibal Orgy’ has any right to be, so how can one quibble? At its best, it achieves camp irony, serious psycho-horror and pathos all more or less at once, which is more than most movies achieve sequentially.

Arrow’s Blu-ray is typically handsome, with the misty, diffuse whiteness of Alfred Taylor’s photography attaining a mysterious, chalk-and-charcoal dustiness that’s truly dreamlike. A cluster of extras trace the movie’s fascinating genesis, and Hill himself comes over as a far nicer guy than most practitioners of supposedly ‘legitimate’ mainstream cinema.

David Cairns

A Field in England

A Fild in England
A Field in England

Format: Cinema, free TV, DVD, VOD

Release date: 5 July 2013

Distributor: Picturehouse Entertainment

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writers: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley

Cast: Reese Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Julian Barratt, Ryan Pope, Peter Ferdinando

UK 2013

90 mins

One of the most exciting directors in contemporary British cinema, Ben Wheatley keeps on surprising his audience. Not one to repeat himself, he refreshed the tired British crime-thriller genre with his brilliant 2009 debut Down Terrace, following it up with the acclaimed horror/gangster tale hybrid Kill List in 2011 and the hilarious black comedy Sightseers in 2012. With A Field in England, Wheatley explores new territory again, delivering an astonishing psychedelic period piece, while innovating in terms of distribution, with the film released simultaneously in cinemas and on TV, DVD and Video On Demand.

Set during the English Civil War, A Field in England follows the cowardly clerk Whitehead (Reese Shearsmith) as he runs away from the battlefield in the company of Cutler (Ryan Pope), Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and Thrower (Julian Barratt). After consuming magic mushrooms, they come across Cutler’s master in the most unusual way (inspired by mushroom folklore, as Wheatley has explained). The master turns out to be the evil alchemist O’Neil (the splendidly sinister Michael Smiley), the man Whitehead’s own master sent him to hunt down after he stole precious documents from him. O’Neil is looking for a treasure buried in a field, and he and Cutler force the three deserters to help him find it.

Thereon follow surreal occurrences, strange transformations, unexplained resurrections, the intimation of dark deeds and a stunning hallucination sequence. Loose and experimental, the film is a little like a trip itself, with moments where nothing much happens making it feel like time is stretching, punctuated by startlingly visionary scenes. Wheatley conjures up horror out of pretty much nothing, with the unnerving sequence in which O’Neil subjects Whitehead to terrible unseen things inside his tent being the most astounding example.

Listen to Virginie Sélavy’s interview with Ben Wheatley on Resonance 104.4FM.

The use of black and white photography fits the film well, adding an unreal, ghostly quality to the bucolic landscape. Regular occurrences of frozen, live tableaux of the characters contribute to the experimental feel. The trippy weirdness is mixed with humour, a constant ingredient in Wheatley’s films, although it is of a bawdier kind here, maybe to fit with the 17th-century setting. Not much is seen of that period, and just like in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990), the major event remains in the background, while the film focuses on marginal figures who play no part in the big historical drama unfolding nearby.

For all its wonderful inventiveness and thrilling moments, however, it has to be said that A Field in England is a film that requires patience and receptiveness on the part of the audience. There are longueurs and the film feels slight at times, not to mention that for those who know Wheatley’s previous films, it is hard not to hope for more horror and drama. Watching the trailer ‘They’re Over Here Devil!’, a sort of condensed orange-tinted distillation of A Field in England, you wish the whole film could have been as intense and demented as that. Despite its flaws, A Field in England is an original, adventurous, imaginative, compelling work, a rare enough thing in a British cinema stifled by formulaic scripts and timorous financing entities, to deserve being celebrated.

Virginie Sélavy

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The Wall

The Wall
The Wall

Format: Cinema

Release date: 5 July 2013

Distributor: New Wave Films

Director: Julian Roman Pölsler

Writer: Julian Roman Pölsler

Based on the novel by: Marlen Haushofer

Cast: Martina Gedeck, Karl Heinz Hackl, Ulrike Beimpold

Original title: Die Wand

Austria, Germany 2011

108 mins

Imagine being trapped: spatially, temporally, psychologically – indefinitely. As far as you can tell you are completely cut off from all civilisations. There is no way out. No matter how expansive the space, how beautiful the landscape, how unlimited the resources, the agony of facing the future alone is terrifying. Such is the predicament facing the Woman in Austrian TV-director Julian Roman Pölsler’s debut feature, The Wall.

Flashbacks provide the explication, but the real heart of the drama rests with watching Martina Gedeck (The Baader-Meinhof Complex, The Lives of Others) wrestle with the daily demands of survival and isolation. Gedeck is a tour de force, expressing depth and variety of emotion with economy and intensity. She does this in almost complete silence, because aside from some brief interaction with other humans, Gedeck’s only co-stars are the Woman’s faithful animals, and nature itself.

The result is that most of the visuals are accompanied only by a monologue voiceover, revealing the Woman’s inner conflicts and reflections on sanity, solitude and time. This may work if you are fluent in German, but sadly can be distracting when subtitled, particularly when the voiceover provides a detailed description of what is presented on-screen. An adaptation of Marlen Haushofer’s 1968 cult novel, the film’s use of voiceover feels overtly literary in its approach, and occasionally, one wonders if certain scenes may have been stronger if left to unfold without the accompanying commentary. However, it does give the film a contemplative, monumental quality that encourages introspection: although completely different in effect, it’s reminiscent of Patrick Keiller’s Robinson films, where carefully composed shots are paired with a monologue that drifts from the banal to the poetic to the political. Keiller’s films are the complete antithesis of fast-paced commercial storytelling, deliberately slow and considered with the aim of making us stop and think. Similarly with The Wall, there is no conventional narrative here – this is a provocative, metaphorical piece, and in the main, it’s very successful.

The influence of German romantic art pervades the film, with many scenes composed of a tableau of a prelapsarian landscape, with the Woman walking into the frame, a small, solitary figure against a sublime backdrop. At one point, the Woman says ‘I think time stands still and I move around in it’, and both aesthetically and philosophically this encapsulates the spirit of the film. Captured by a number of cinematographers over many seasons, nature is presented in all its awe-inspiring beauty and cruelty, with the film dramatising the Woman’s existential and physical struggle to remain in a world indifferent to her survival, and where her only hope of success is to try to accept and find meaning in her situation.

Intriguing and mesmerising, The Wall is also demanding and unconventional. The occasionally didactic voiceover may be off-putting for some, but if you surrender to the style and premise, it’s a rich and immensely rewarding film that begs repeat viewing.

Stephanie King

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