One of the most exciting directors in contemporary British cinema, Ben Wheatley keeps on surprising his audience. Not one to repeat himself, he refreshed the tired British crime-thriller genre with his brilliant 2009 debut Down Terrace, following it up with the acclaimed horror/gangster tale hybrid Kill List in 2011 and the hilarious black comedy Sightseers in 2012. With A Field in England, Wheatley explores new territory again, delivering an astonishing psychedelic period piece, while innovating in terms of distribution, with the film released simultaneously in cinemas and on TV, DVD and Video On Demand.
Set during the English Civil War, A Field in England follows the cowardly clerk Whitehead (Reese Shearsmith) as he runs away from the battlefield in the company of Cutler (Ryan Pope), Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and Thrower (Julian Barratt). After consuming magic mushrooms, they come across Cutler’s master in the most unusual way (inspired by mushroom folklore, as Wheatley has explained). The master turns out to be the evil alchemist O’Neil (the splendidly sinister Michael Smiley), the man Whitehead’s own master sent him to hunt down after he stole precious documents from him. O’Neil is looking for a treasure buried in a field, and he and Cutler force the three deserters to help him find it.
Thereon follow surreal occurrences, strange transformations, unexplained resurrections, the intimation of dark deeds and a stunning hallucination sequence. Loose and experimental, the film is a little like a trip itself, with moments where nothing much happens making it feel like time is stretching, punctuated by startlingly visionary scenes. Wheatley conjures up horror out of pretty much nothing, with the unnerving sequence in which O’Neil subjects Whitehead to terrible unseen things inside his tent being the most astounding example.
The use of black and white photography fits the film well, adding an unreal, ghostly quality to the bucolic landscape. Regular occurrences of frozen, live tableaux of the characters contribute to the experimental feel. The trippy weirdness is mixed with humour, a constant ingredient in Wheatley’s films, although it is of a bawdier kind here, maybe to fit with the 17th-century setting. Not much is seen of that period, and just like in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990), the major event remains in the background, while the film focuses on marginal figures who play no part in the big historical drama unfolding nearby.
For all its wonderful inventiveness and thrilling moments, however, it has to be said that A Field in England is a film that requires patience and receptiveness on the part of the audience. There are longueurs and the film feels slight at times, not to mention that for those who know Wheatley’s previous films, it is hard not to hope for more horror and drama. Watching the trailer ‘They’re Over Here Devil!’, a sort of condensed orange-tinted distillation of A Field in England, you wish the whole film could have been as intense and demented as that. Despite its flaws, A Field in England is an original, adventurous, imaginative, compelling work, a rare enough thing in a British cinema stifled by formulaic scripts and timorous financing entities, to deserve being celebrated.
Watch the trailer: