Synopsis: Fleeing for their lives, a small party abandon their Civil War confederates and escape through an overgrown field. Thinking only of what lay behind, they are ambushed by two dangerous men and made to search the field
As a fan of Ben Wheatley’s previous efforts Kill List and, especially, Sightseers (review here) I was in equal measures intrigued and excited buy his low budget black and white psychological horror, A Field In England. Shot over 12 days in, unsurprisingly, a field in England, Surrey to be specific, it is a visceral and unsettling psychedelic trip through the minds of three 17th Century Civil War deserters and their encounter with two dangerous men.
Led by cowardly yet academically self assured priest/alchemist Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), the band of peasant misfits make brief camp and each ingest a stew of locally sourced mushrooms. Suffering from acute hallucinations the men find themselves in the presence of a mysteriously powerful and dark soul by the name of O’Neill (Michael Smiley). Sensing an opportunity to utilise Whiteheads skills in the dark arts to locate hidden treasure within the field the men find themselves locked in an ordeal beyond their limited comprehension.
In much the same way as Berberian Sound Studio, A Field In England is best enjoyed when you give your self completely to Wheatley’s beautiful and at times mystifying use of religious imagery and symbolism. Throughout there are evident nods to a host of surrealist influences; Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, and 1964 Japanese headfuck Onibaba to name but a few. It is also in parts a genuinely unsettling experience. Wheatley has a natural talent for creating oppressive atmospheres and A Field In England has it’s fair share. This due in the most part to the story being so obscurely written and paced that when Wheatley veers into protracted periods of schizophrenic symbolism you are left feeling completely discombobulated.
Upon it’s release it got mixed reviews, mainly from critics who saw it as an obscure step too far. A vanity project that raised more questions than it answered. And while it is fair to say that it is a vanity project, small budget, quick turn around productions like this are the perfect place to do it. Why not reward a talented Director like Wheatley to indulge himself with a mind bending, acid trip Civil War movie about a group of men tripping balls in a field digging for treasure? Put it this way; i’d rather give Ben Wheatley £300k to do that and get something as visually stimulating and emotionally raw as A Field In England than give Ridley Scott $100m to make a self indulgent, dull, flatulent, turd of a movie like Prometheus.
While it retains Wheatley’s trademark use of jet black humour and natural dialogue (I likened it at one point to a Terry GIlliam episode of Blackadder) to offset his love of razor sharp visceral violence, this is definitely the least accessible of his films to date. It will certainly divide opinion on whether it crosses the line from art house interesting to overly obtuse twoddle. Most importantly though it will spark debate. Either on the merits of the film itself or what story Wheatly has so enigmatically wrapped in the stark monochrome of the English countryside.
Conclusion: An enigmatic, visceral and at times unsettling experience. Like other films of it’s ilk (Donnie Darko, Lost Highway) it can spark endless debate about what it all means. Regardless of it’s narrative merits it remains one of the most intriguing and engaging cinematic experiences I have had this year.
Cast: Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiiley, Richard Glover, Peter Ferdinado, Ryan Pope