The sun-drenched English countryside takes a starring role in Frances Lea’s Strawberry Fields. Impossibly bright blue skies and lush green foliage are showcased in this visually gorgeous film right from the off as a woman (Anna Madeley) cycles through an idyllic Kent, looking pretty happy with life.
This chipper atmosphere doesn’t last long though as a phone rings, the display shows ‘Emily’ and instantly the mood changes as the cyclist flashes back to her escape – seemingly only hours, if not minutes, earlier. Accompanying the memory is the sound of a child counting and it’s one creepy set-up. She shakes it off and cycles on to a farm where she introduces herself as Tammy, an art student from Scarborough. Despite coming off as a little bit weird, she gets a job picking strawberries and attracts the attention of Kev (Emun Elliot), who is “after drugs and sex, that’s it” but gets all philosophical about fruit needing love.
Then, to ruin it all, Emily (Christine Bottomley) turns up in the flesh, outs ‘Tammy’ as her sister Gillian, a postwoman who lives a few miles away. Despite the disruption to his livelihood, the farmer doesn’t kick the sisters off his land and instead Emily tags along allowing us to soon see why Gillian ran away in the first place: Emily is even stranger than her sister – manipulative, capricious and possibly dangerous.
Film opening with the protagonist running away? Flashbacks of a disturbing past recently escaped? Cod-philosophy about the nature of life? A disturbed sister in need of care? It’s all sounding a bit Martha Marcy May Marlene but unfortunately, Strawberry Fields suffers for the comparison.
Anna Madeley swings convincingly between resolving to abdicate responsibility for her difficult sister and being unable to let her suffer but while both sisters seem younger than they are, as if they’ve been segregated from normal society, we never learn what’s actually wrong with Emily. Remarks about past experiences are thrown out without explanation and there’s little background for any of the other characters. Insights into the situation are clumsily delivered, frequently from Kev, who appears to be blessed with magical intuition while lacking any self-awareness. The lack of context strips characters of their motivation, making their reactions seem unnecessarily extreme, and overall the whole film is stilted, lurching from one confrontation to the next.
Made on a micro budget, Strawberry Fields is still a fairly confident debut feature but its melodramatic characters don’t make it easy to like.
Strawberry Fields is to be released in the UK in April 2012.