Sunday, May 03, 2015

A Kingdom for Sack

Shakespeare's Henry IV has two kings and people plotting to take over the monarchy but most people agree the best character--possibly the best Shakespeare ever wrote--is Falstaff, an aged, overweight knight who'd rather be drinking than fighting. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has Clint Eastwood as an iconic hero, Lee Van Cleef as a seemingly unstoppable killer, but most people generally agree (as did the film's director) the best character is Eli Wallach as Tuco, a crass man of average skill with human pettiness and human needs. Shades of both these great characters manifest in 2013's brilliant A Field in England, a film of the English Civil War that's not about kings or revolutionaries in castles and cathedrals but five average men in an anonymous field. This is one of the best movies I've seen of the decade.

Ben Wheatley directed, Amy Jump wrote, and the two together edited this black and white film which begins in a hedgerow where clumsy violence between five men gradually ends after a zealous officer is killed and the rest of them get to talking about how there's an ale house just over the hill and doesn't that sound like a better place to be? Together, like Falstaff, they exercise the "better part of valour" and head off.

Three of them, Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), Friend (Richard Glover), and Cutler (Ryan Pope), are average peasant soldiers, the fourth is Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), an alchemist's assistant who was on the field to track down O'Neill (Michael Smiley), an Irish nobleman who was assistant to the same alchemist until he absconded with the master's notes and sundry other possessions one day.

There's also a Samuel Beckett quality to the story though it's not as explicitly abstract. The existence of the sought after ale house is never certain, the location of the field is obscure and Whitehead and Friend speculate on the possible distance to Gloucester and Essex. When they do run across O'Neill he takes charge of the group by the authority of his two pistols and possibly his fine hat and cloak, arbitrarily putting Cutler in charge of the other three and using some kind of divination involving hallucinogenic mushrooms to turn Whitehead into a stumbling human divining rod to find buried treasure.

If nothing else, Friend observes to Jacob, they manage to dig a very fine hole and O'Neill can't argue with that after they've spent hours digging in the spot Whitehead had indicated. They pause when Jacob has some aggravation from nettles he'd fallen into while trying to defecate earlier. Whitehead examines him and makes a poultice.

One can read the relationship in the group as a reflection of the larger politics at play in the kingdom--O'Neill's authority asserted by show of force like the New Model Army taking over Parliament, the signs of aristocracy in his person automatically inspiring fealty like the tradition that backed King Charles. Mostly he's just a man who wants to get rich.

And that's the brilliant thing about this movie--these aren't monuments or superheroes, they're just people looking for the best way to fill their bellies and lose some of the pain of existence. This point is reinforced with some visual irony as they actors occasionally stand still in tableaux, as though they're figures of legend despite instead chomping feverishly on mushrooms or inspecting a fellow's genitals for signifying sores.

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