by Kathie Smith
It’s hard to believe that British director Ben Wheatley is only four feature films into his career. His achievements in provoking through genre transmogrification—raising the ire of some and arousing exaltation in others—feel like they could already fill annals of a multi-volume catalog. Wheatley’s appreciation for the absurd is matched by his understanding of cinematic atmosphere, often crafted with pointed motivation. His most recent creation, a 15th-century psychedelic interlude shot in high contrast black and white, might be his most accessible yet—not so much in its subject matter as in its complete disinterest in the emotional manipulation so prominent (and incendiary) in Kill List (2009) and Sightseers (2012). A Field in England might play it safe as a hilariously scripted romp on a grassy knoll, but it does so with blissful style to burn.
The Film Society of Minneapolis/St Paul
Director: Ben Wheatley
Producers: Anna Higgs, Claire Jones, Andrew Starke
Writers: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley
Cinematographer: Laurie Rose
Editors: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley
Music: James Williams
Cast: Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Ryan Pope, Richard Glover, Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando
Premiere: July 4, 2013 – Karlovy Vary Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: February 7, 2014
US Distributor: Drafthouse Films
A novice astronomer named Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) cowers in the bushes as the Civil War wages no more than an arm’s length away. Relieved to see his master killed in battle, Whitehead reluctantly joins three soldiers who have independently decided to take a little break from the fighting. Whitehead scolds them for running away from their duties, to which one retorts, “We’re not running away. We’re going for a beer.” The bedraggled merry gents never make it to their alehouse destination, however, because Cutler (Ryan Pope), the devilish one of the four, has other plans. He boils up a soup with psychotropic mushrooms and cons the men into helping him pull a thick rope that ambiguously leads off into the field. What they find at the end of the rope, after a fair amount of exertion, is O’Neil (Michael Smiley), a necromancer who all but enslaves the four men into helping him find a treasure fabled to be hidden in the field.
Any inclination to understand the plot before walking into the theater (or after) will be wasted energy. Convoluted by design, A Field in England embraces a madness inherent to war as well as an environment laden with mysticism, alchemy and drugs. But the strange doesn’t stop with the sophistic narrative; Wheatley blankets the story with augmenting camerawork and post-production flair including chaotic extreme close-ups, dreamy soft focus, counterintuitive framing, overstated slow-motion, and hilarious still frames that are actually not still frames at all, but the actors standing still in ostentatious postures, as if these disheveled madmen were posing for a Renaissance painting.
The thrilling apex of this demented meandering comes an hour into the film when Whitehead, mild mannered and accommodating to a fault, loses his composure. Suffering from the effects of O’Neil’s dark arts and barbaric treatment, Whitehead crawls off into the field and frustratingly stuffs his mouth full of the mind-altering mushrooms and proclaims: “I shall chew up all the selfish scheming and ill intentions that men like you force upon men like me and bury it in the stomach of this place.” The screen erupts into a strobing Rorschach test and the field explodes with a violent windstorm. The violent wind, however, is accompanied by silence with conversations surreally overdubbed in hushed voices. A blood bath, modest by Wheatley’s standards, is about to begin.
Earlier in the film, Whitehead warns O’Neil of a prophetic vision of an ill planet moving towards them. The ambience of that “ill planet” is very much present in A Field in England—in the mayhem of war and the punishing convalescence sought by these five men. Wheatley’s experimental costume drama bubbles with larger meaning, but it’s more of a euphoric platform for Amy Bell’s shrewd writing, Martin Pavey’s rich sound design, and Wheatley’s own inventive filmmaking, proving that he’s not even close to resting on the laurels of his more infamous and inflammatory work.