fieldinengland_610

Hey, girl.

Yeah, I know. I should really be writing my Gravity review. Thing is, people are going to see that movie. They’ve heard of it. It’s on their televisions and their radars. Something like A Field in England tends to have a much lower exposure level. I’ll eventually write about Gravity but today my task is to review a film that most of my readers are unlikely to have heard of.

The only other Ben Wheatley film I’ve seen is Kill List and A Field in England could not be more different. If Wheatley has a signature by this point, four or five films into his career, it’s probably experimentalism. Seeing only two of his films, the reputation seems well-earned. There aren’t any movies exactly like this one, but there are a few with enough similarities to offer a comparative sense of what kind of film this is.

It’s certainly difficult to recommend. Some are going to hate it. It’s about as inaccessible a film as most people ever encounter. There’s very little plot, too much insular humor, and the pacing is what the attentionless would call glacial. That said, it’s a thoroughly engaging experience if you can stick with it. The real pleasure of the film is the anarchic, psychedelic glee with which it confuses. It’s not necessarily important what the “whole thing is about” when you’re watching strobing images of dirty men’s faces melting into each other and into a character’s cape like the demented decor of a butterfly wing.A-Field-in-England-34602_0

One of the central themes is servitude.

The plot that is goes like this: a handful of men break away from a battle during the English civil war of the 1640’s. They tromp through the titular field, looking for an Alehouse within which to take a break from the fighting, the marching, and the orders of their masters. Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) is a cowardly scholar who has failed to find a colleague who has stolen from their alchemist master. The others, Friend (Richard Glover), Trower (Julian Baratt) and Cutler (Ryan Pope) appear to be soldiers tired of the war. Of course, it’d be a lot more simple if these guys were just one hedgerow away from ale and companionship.

Along the way, Cutler doses Friend and Trower with “magic mushrooms” to soften them up for the arrival of an Irishman called O’Neill (Michael Smiley). O’Neill is the very thief that Whitehead was charged to find. His failure may mean his death if the army ever catches up with him. He alone refuses the mushrooms, but it’s him that O’Neill needs most. O’Neill, the menacing and regal occultist, believes there is treasure somewhere in the field. He needs Whitehead’s talent for divination to find it.

And this is where things start to get strange. Whitehead is pathetically unable to assert any kind of dominance on anyone. He is “unused to making decisions” and has spent most of his life with books. Cutler calls him a coward and he does little to suggest he’s anything more. The yoke that O’Neill places on him seems at first to cost him his sanity. When O’Neill makes the situation they’re all in clear to Whitehead, he takes him into his tent presumably to brief him. Instead, the audience gets to watch the other three men react to five or six straight minutes of Whitehead’s increasingly anguished screams.

AFIE3

Whatever happened to him in there, Whitehead becomes a sort of walking dowsing rod.

Whitehead leads the men to a place in the field where they can set up and begin to try and dig up the treasure. More madness, dark hilarity, and violence ensues. Men die and reappear alive only to die again. Whitehead seems to recover his sanity while Cutler loses his. A mad and dreamy persistence of imagery collects into a sense of foreboding for the audience. Something is going to happen, but what?

When things kick off, there’s a powerful and memorable sequence I alluded to earlier. In his madness, Whitehead appears to suffer a vision of sorts. It’s what most people are going to remember this film for. That and Reece Shearsmith’s brilliant, transformative performance from cowardly and servile weakling to something… more.

A-Field-in-England-2013-thumb-630xauto-39296

On a visual level, the film frequently impresses.

The black and white imagery is often stunning. Supporting it, the film also features great sound design and music. The punctuation of the heavy, ear-splitting pistols is particularly memorable. Beyond that, Wheatley and cinematographer Laurie Rose use interesting techniques such as brief semi-still shots as sort of chapter breaks, occasional slow motion, and commitment to the very basic, almost singular setting of the film. The field is a character, and even has a voice (Sara Dee).

A Field in England is not an especially quiet film. There’s plenty of dialogue in Amy Jump’s script, much of it instilling a sense of humor and camaraderie which undercut the mounting horror of the film.  That said, it’s still a very contemplative experience. I don’t think you need to ponder it to get something from it, but it seems like the type of film that only reveals itself fully to those attentive and fascinated enough to give it more than one go.

21026360_2013081214203898.jpg-r_640_600-b_1_D6D6D6-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxx

Whitehead’s transformation is an easy takeaway.

One of the problems with reviewing this film is that I’m not especially sure what it was about. I don’t know why we see Friend die and then come back only to die again. I’m not sure what the significance of Whitehead’s somewhat more courageous and decisive behavior toward the end of the film is. I know that the words “I am my own master” may be a signifier unto themselves. Up to the point where he utters them, Whitehead has been a slave to his circumstances and to the wiles of stronger willed men. He eventually manages to rise up and overthrow O’Neill and this may be symbolic of that simple idea which runs its course all through the film: servitude sucks.

I say this, but it seems like that sequence at the hour mark of the film is the most communicative about what the film is attempting. During this bit, Whitehead imbibes a huge handful of mushrooms and gives a little speech about “chewing up the selfish scheming that men like you inflict on men like me” and “burying it in the stomach of this place”. Then he gets up and there’s wind, gunfire, crazy eyes, and a bunch of flickering transposed images that seem meant to impart a sense of shared identity, of sameness for Whitehead and O’Neill.

My theory is that it’s symbolic of Whitehead’s transition from slave to master. It’s only later that he actually overthrows O’Neill and says “I am my own master”. After that, it’s a very different Whitehead we see. He dons O’Neill’s hat and cloak and seems to stand straighter, move more confidently, and even seems more handsome than before.

a-field-in-england

Whitehead’s praying probably isn’t going to help.

There’s a muddled and intentionally vague aspect of magic running through the film. What is delusion and what is actual power seems to be part of the point of introducing hallucinogenic mushrooms into the mix. There are many things, small things, that happen or we see and we’re not quite sure what to make of them. Why does Whitehead wear O’Neill’s clothes? What is the significance of returning to the battle, through the hedges as if the field was just a fantasy in its totality? What is the small black jewel O’Neill swallows just before Whitehead appears to be calling up a gale against him? What is the black glass disc? The documents that O’Neill stole?

A comfort with mysteries that don’t seem to resolve is probably required for this film. But like I said, you don’t need to care about that to take something away. A Field in England is an existential horror film that can be read as a story about a cowardly, servile man who overthrows a villainous, deranged oppressor. It could be a metaphor for a chapter of English history, or an allegorical tale of an inner struggle all men and women might suffer.

Advertisements