Two recent British films, “A Field in England” (which opens in U.S. theaters and on VOD this week) and the Oscar-nominated “Philomena,” use comedy to depict real historical events. While they couldn’t be more different from each other, together they demonstrate the great and many traditions of British comedy.
“A Field in England” doesn’t care one iota for historical accuracy as it depicts the English Civil War through the haze of some hallucinogenic mushrooms. “Philomena,” on the other hand, sardonically recounts a human-interest story detailing how a seemingly washed-up British journalist uncovers a market for selling children that took place under the watchful eye of the Catholic Church. They both resemble well-established traditions of British humor: Wheatley has echoes of Monty Python while Frears looks to Ealing comedies.
Wheatley is a director who likes to jump between genres. His last feature, “Sightseers, was a macabre black comedy about a serial killer on a caravan holiday. Despite the British setting and the actors’ accents, the sensibility of the title character had deep American comedic tones. Written by principal actors Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, stand-up comedians with material that suggests hours of watching “Saturday Night Live,” the film “Sightseers” falls into the tradition of “Serial Mom.” It was a distinctly American touch to position the villain as the comedic center for the sake of black humor. (That being said, the American remake of the British anomaly “The Ladykillers” is another rare example of finding the Brits doing comedic murderers well.)
Keeping more in touch with the color of his passport, with “A Field in England” Wheatley delivers a bonkers tale told in the traditions of Monty Python, Blackadder and, more tangentially, Bruce Robinson’s “Withnail and I.” In keeping with this heritage, Wheatley chooses traditional “losers” as his chief protagonists. British comedy has never had much of a tradition based around a character intent on doing evil, preferring instead to champion laissez-faire individuals wanting to simply live their lives in peace and quiet. If these characters have a mantra, it’s “leave me alone.”
In “A Field in England,” Wheatley focuses on a group of army deserters. Would an American filmmaker make such a choice at a time when troops are engaged in overseas incursions? These particular deserters are low-level soldiers, the English Civil War equivalent of Roman Centurions. Wheatley’s prize asset is an alchemist and coward (Reece Shearsmith) who abandons the battlefield and meets a group of fellow deserters, treasure hunter Cutler (Ryan Pope), crass Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and a well-meaning simpleton (Richard Glover).
Once the setup is complete, Wheatley abandons the traditional narrative in favor of a series of sketches that vary wildly in style. It’s as if the characters from “The Magic Roundabout” have walked through a purple haze into a period drama. These are flawed yet likeable people; their stupidity and hedonism could fit right in at a Manchester student house. The characters’ foibles are the source of laughs. All they want to do is change their lot in life and in overhangs from the British class system they don’t want to listen to authority. Wheatley pushes the idea to its limit by giving some scenes a hallucinogenic look that would make Richard Lester proud. The film would no doubt have been deemed a mess if the haphazard style didn’t echoes these much-loved British comedies.
The same use of British character archetypes also takes place in “Philomena.” First all, Steve Coogan can’t help being…Steve Coogan. There is not much that separates the Steve Coogan of “The Trip” from the journalist Martin Sixsmith venturing to America with Judi Dench’s old British lady. Sarcasm and self-depreciation are central to Coogan’s delivery, as they are in many British comedy legends. When a tabloid editor tells an unemployed Sixsmith he should try his hand at a human interest story, his immediate reaction is to sneer. When faced with someone who believes in God, he reverts to the skeptical approach prevalent in modern British secularism. It’s an ironic role for Coogan to take on given his other role as an activist who has positioned himself at the center of calls to increase laws curtailing the ability of British journalists to peer into private lives.
But “Philomena” isn’t exclusively political in its humor. There is also a touch of the television series “Fawlty Towers” and “The Thick of It” in the fact that, while Coogan is the one seemingly calling the shots with his laconic wit, he comes off worse in most exchanges. Whether playing Alan Partridge, himself or Sixsmith, Coogan has difficulty being sincere. Nothing should be praised unless it really can’t be helped.
The last thing Sixsmith wants to do is travel around with an old lady and he can’t hide his antagonism towards the situation and her. She hates his constant desire to put down everything and tells him so. Indeed, much of the comedy comes from Dench acting like a school matron. After all, many of us Brits hate it when others are self-depreciating, especially when they’re not in on the joke.
So whereas in “The Trip,” Coogan and Brydon just try to outdo each other, in “Philomena” Coogan is instead chastised like a child. Dench is the perfect foil for him, not because she’s a joke-a-minute but because she can’t stand his attitude and has mastered the art of the putdown. She’s the matron from St Trinian’s — an oft-found female figure in Ealing Comedies. That the film should occasionally nod to the same movie tradition is no surprise given that its characters’ attitudes, rather than form and style, drive much of the distinctly British scree humor.
Other similarities between the characters in “A Field in England” and “Philomena” come from Frears depicting those who can loosely be deemed “life’s losers.” Sixsmith’s career is on the way down, and Dench plays a lady who has spent half a century mourning the loss of her child.
It’s the common character traits, deeply rooted in British comic traditions, that makes these two seemingly incomparable movies use many of the same methods for character development — and humour — yes, with a “u.”
A version of this essay was originally published during the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. “A Field in England” opens Friday in limited release and on VOD.