Today: May 23, 2024

Ben Wheatley: A Leftfield In England

If you were to list popular genres in modern British cinema you’d probably end up with: Costume Drama, Social Realist Drama, and Romantic Comedy. And, to be fair, that’s about it. The genres that used to be a staple of British cinema have pretty much fallen by the wayside. War films are now predominantly made in America. Kitchen Sink Dramas, like Poor Cow, A Taste Of Honey and Saturday Night And Sunday Morning might have been revolutionary in the 50’s and 60’s but the worries of working class folk now seem unlikely to grasp audience attentions. Even the more groundbreaking films of the 70’s by Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg are distant memories.

But it was horror which British cinema used to be really famous for. Hammer was one of the biggest names in the business during the ‘50s and made icons of actors like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. These were visually stunning films with a vibrant use of colour and gore. Hammer represented British cinema at its most visceral and jarring. Sadly though, such films have been pushed aside in recent years in favour of the torture porn movies that now litter the shelves of DVD stores. However, the good news is that British horror isn’t completely dead and buried.

Cult Classics
Ben Wheatley started his filmmaking career in short films and animation before moving into TV. It wasn’t until 2009 that he made his first film Down Terrace. This darkly comic tale of a crime family in disarray doesn’t sound like a far cry from the films of Guy Richie but it had much more going for it than those Cockney larkabouts.

Firstly, the dialogue between the characters was very natural. Nothing felt forced. You felt as if you were intruding within these peoples’ lives. You could say it had the air of a Tarantino or Coen Brothers film to it. Secondly, was the intensity of the film. Many of these characters seemed constantly on the edge, coiled up with tension. Wheatley filmed them very closely, almost as portraits. Considering the majority of the film takes place in one house, Down Terrace is a very claustrophobic film. The only releases of tension come from the odd breaks of humour. Finally, Wheatley’s debut featured a trait that has been popular throughout his films: bloodthirsty gore. Although he doesn’t paint the screen red, Wheatley’s films do feature an infrequent use of explosive, grotesque violence. Unlike the torture porn movies, these films find a resolution and reasoning behind the violence. The story behind these films- rather than gore for the sake of it – is what drives them.

Although Down Terrace was a thoroughly refreshing film, it didn’t resonate much beyond the festival circuit. However Wheatley’s next film would create a buzz that would see it hailed as not only one of the best films of 2011, but one of the best horror films of recent years.

Kill List told the mysterious story of two hit men who are assigned a series of jobs by a client they know little about but who knows a lot about them. If this wasn’t worrying enough, their targets all seem to have dark, dirty secrets that are best left alone. Much like Down Terrace, Kill List was dialogue heavy and also had ample amounts of explicit violence but the intensity of the film was amped up to eleven. With most horror films, there tends to be some catharsis, when emotions are momentarily put on hold and all tension is released. Kill List had none of that. Borrowing from extreme Japanese and Korean cinema, plus the odd nod to classic British horror, Kill List was an invigorating horror film that had a sense of originality, realism and surrealism. It was a film that, rightly, turned a few heads and Ben Wheatley quickly became an overnight sensation.

Psychedelic Hell
Perhaps it was the success of Kill List that brought comedians Alice Lowe and Steve Oram to the director’s door. The result was Sightseers: think Badlands in kagools. Sightseers was one of the most unlikely hits of last year. This bloody, but hilarious film not only showcased Wheatley’s eye for horror but also his brilliant handling of domestic situations. Never has a woman throwing pasta in a bin felt so sinister. The murders, though shocking, always seemed to come from nowhere, actually making them more distasteful and immoral. The whole film had a very British quality to it. Ripe with in-jokes and references, it was no wonder it was a hit. It also featured the best acting from a dog since The Artist.

We now find Wheatley at an exciting time in his career. With a few solid films under his belt, he could have been forgiven for playing it easy. He hasn’t. Although A Field In England (Main Picture) is still predominantly a horror film, it just happens to take place during the English Civil War, where a group of soldiers are lead to a possessed field. The trailer sees Wheatley regular Michael Smiley along with The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt in some sort of psychedelic hell. It’s a visually stunning treat that is also equally unnerving. Plus the entire film appears to have been filmed in black and white. Is Wheatley already throwing an experimental film at us? It looks so – and early reviews are positive. Another thing that’s unique about A Field in England is its release. The 5th of July will not only see it hit cinemas; it will also be available to purchase on DVD while a screening will take place over on Film 4. This isn’t an entirely a new concept but, for an already respected director like Ben Wheatley, it’s a bold choice and statement.

So, four films in, and Ben Wheatley is already trying innovative methods to produce and promote his films. It’ll hardly change the film industry but you have to give the man a hand for thinking outside the box and challenging the establishment. While Wheatley may be at the forefront of new British cinema, he isn’t alone. Directors like Paddy Considine, Shane Meadows, Andrea Arnold, Peter Strickland and Steve McQueen have all made unique and provocative films in the past few years which garnered a good amount of positive attention. The days of the Kitchen Sink drama are far behind us, but British cinema appears to be heading in an exciting and engaging new direction.

A Field In England opens on 5th July.

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