With the release of A FIELD IN ENGLAND, I decided to review the work of British writer-director Ben Wheatley, charting his move from well-crafted but fundamentally straightforward character dramas to surreal, obscure horror. His first feature was the low-budget gangster drama, DOWN TERRACE, which garnered acclaim on the festival circuit.
The movie follows a small-town British family for a fortnight after the mobbed-up father and son, Bill and Karl, are released from prison. The first half of the film feels a bit like The Sopranos, as mid-ranking criminals are deadpan funny in their petty arguments about banal everyday problems, contrasting with their high-crime professional lives. It’s the kind of movie in which the assassin moans about having to babysit his toddler, and the long-suffering mother offers his little kid some orange squash while offering his father a selection of knives for his hit. And there’s a scene at a bust stop that I hated myself for finding so funny. There’s even a feckless son of a former friend who may or may not have grassed up the father – mirroring Tony’s irritation with Chrisopher Moltisanti.
Wheatley turns his small budget and limited shooting time into a virtue, creating a feeling of claustrophobia and slowly building tension as DP Laurie Rose shoots almost exclusively handheld in situ in a small terraced house. The soundtrack is also effectively used as a commentary and a counter-point – beautiful blues music from Robert Johnson and folk music from Karen Dalton juxtaposing increasingly out-of-kilter violent scenes. In front of the camera, we feel the menacing domineering presence of the paterfamilias, even when he’s not on screen, and the relationship with his volatile son is brilliantly drawn – no doubt helped by the fact that most of the cast are related in real life. But it’s really Michael Smiley who steals the show as Pringle – the family’s in-house toddler-toting assassin – and you can see why Wheatley chose to work with him in his subsequent movies.
Overall, the movie is an assured and accomplished feature début that manages that truly difficult balance of dark humour and dark violence – combining an almost surreal descent into violent paranoia with some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments. It deserves to be seen more widely.
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- The unique distribution situation & A Field in England (noframeof.com)
- Wheatley ‘overwhelmed’ with reaction (bbc.co.uk)