Two British films, "A Field in England" and "Philomena" (both playing at the Toronto Film Festival), 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.