Ever since I first saw the trailer for Ben Wheatley’s newest film, A Field in England, and heard murmurings about it from the press in Britain, where it was released last year simultaneously in cinemas, on television, on Blu-ray, and on VOD, I was struck by just how odd it looked. It’s a black & white period piece set in the English Civil War of the 17th Century and includes some of the trippiest imagery since Eraserhead. In fact, this seems very akin to the work of David Lynch, with its quirky characters, its sparse and industrial soundscape, and its ability to leave an audience saying “WTF?!” But, while there’s some Lynchian aspects, the film is very much an auteurist piece from one of film’s most unique voices.
Before seeing A Field in England, I thought I’d familiarize myself with his other two major works: 2011’s Kill List and 2012’s Sightseers. The former is a very dark thriller-turned-horror film in which a hit man and his partner embark on series of murders for hire eight months after a botched assignment. Things get progressively weird from there. The latter is a comedy in which a new 30-something couple go on a camping holiday and begin “accidentally” killing people. Things get progressively weird from there. Both movies were independent productions that look like independent movies in the way they were shot, but employ a fierceness and rawness that a studio picture never could handle. And, incidentally, I greatly enjoyed both.
For A Field in England, Wheatley and writing collaborator Amy Jump take that same rawness and verite shooting style and apply it to a historical drama. While the monochrome gives it a bit of a classic cinema vibe, this is a movie that would never and could never have been made before now. While all of his films have graphic violence, and this one is no exception, Wheatley knows here when it is perhaps best to turn away or allow the pain to be shown on the characters’ faces rather than in bodily dismemberment or bloodshed.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story follows Whitehead, played by Reece Shearsmith, an apprentice alchemist and affirmed coward, who at the beginning of the movie climbs through some hedges onto a deserted English field to escape a bloody battle happening at all times just beyond the shrubbery. He’s also hiding from Trower (Julian Barratt), a captain who is forcing Whitehead to help them find another alchemist who has committed many thefts. Quickly, Whitehead encounters three others who have abandoned their posts in the battle; Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), a drunk with all manner of 17th Century maladies, Friend (Richard Glover), a dolt who sings a lot, and Cutler (Ryan Pope), a highwayman. As they walk further into the field to find an ale house, Cutler suddenly makes them pull on a large rope attacked to a wooden stake in the ground. After yanking on what seems like nothing, they soon see that it was, somehow, attached to a man, O’Neil (Michael Smiley), the alchemist Whitehead was after.
Cutler is O’Neil’s second, and they are looking for buried treasure somewhere in the field. They mean to use Whitehead’s abilities, gifted at alchemy and science as he is, to locate the spot they are to dig. After some ungodly violations, Whitehead is overcome by some force and runs around the field until he claims the dig site. Add to their peril, the only thing they have to eat are psychedelic mushrooms which grow in the field. Is it magic? Is it a bad trip? Is any of this really happening? We never quite know for sure. Or do we?
What makes this movie work is just how cleverly it bleeds the lines between hallucination and reality. It keeps us all on really uneven footing the whole time, and even when we think we’ve got a handle on it, something small happens to change that. It’s essentially a five-person play, and it all takes place on the same vacant span of grass in between forest, but it has a weird sense of grandeur from the costumes, the dialogue, and just the overall otherworldly feel of the “magic” employed. Mainly, this is achieved through camera and sound tricks, but it’s very effective, if not particularly technological.
The cast members are all terrific. Shearsmith, whom you may have seen in The World’s End or The League of Gentlemen, gives a really nuanced performance as the meek and master-whipped man attempting to be forthright in this scenario. When he begins to lose it, he really becomes terrifying. Smiley, also a veteran of Edgar Wright films as well as being the other hit man in Kill List, is pompous and nasty in equal measure as the ruthless alchemist. He makes one of the better villains I’ve seen in a good long while. The scene in which he does SOMETHING to Shearsmith’s character is played out solely through screams from inside a tent, and it’s the other character’s wincing and crying in response to the horror that we see. When O’Neil emerges from the tent, we see that he’s completely unmoved by the evil he’s just committed.
This movie is designated as a horror movie, and I suppose it technically is, but it’s definitely much more of a psychological mindjob than a pulse-pounding fright-fest. The big “trip” scene is as unsettling as anything in traditional horror movies, but is done entirely through rapid edits and hollow sound. If you get at all motion sick, this couple of minutes you’ll want to watch through clasped hands. There is also a very ambiguous ending, but one in keeping with the kind of Samuel Beckett play we’ve just watched.
I don’t know entirely what to make of A Field in England, but I do know that it’s a movie I’ll be mulling over for the foreseeable future, and that’s pretty much all you can hope for from a film these days. I look forward to seeing what Ben Wheatley does next, which looks to be directing the first two episodes of Doctor Who Series 8. They probably won’t be this disturbing, but if they’re done as artfully and adeptly as this, everyone will be in good hands.