Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover |
Now that I’ve seen his 3 most recent films, one thing I can say with certainty about film director Ben Wheatley is: He’s an artist who refuses to be pigeonholed. Kill List, released in 2011, is a violent British-Gangster mumble-core movie that also dealt with cults/secret societies and illegal pornography. 2012’s Sightseers is a madcap bloody romp, a hysterically off-beat Horror movie with some serious black comedy.
Wheatley’s most recent offering, A Field in England, defies categorization like nothing else. It’s a historical drama, filmed in black & white, employing a bevy of experimental techniques. It’s also a deeply disturbing, surrealist nightmare.
Official Synopsis: Amid the Civil War in 17th-century England, a group of deserters flee from battle through an overgrown field. Captured by an alchemist, the men are forced to help him search to find a hidden treasure that he believes is buried in the field.
The first thing you get when watching A Field in England is a warning that some of the film’s strobe effects my produce adverse reactions in people with specific sensitivities. This actually sets up a foreboding mood before the film even kicks off in earnest. A movie that might literally blow your mind? Now that’s scary!
My educational upbringing perhaps puts me at a slight disadvantage; as a product of the American public school system, I know almost nothing about the English Civil War. Add to this the fact that players on both sides of the conflict look very much alike (white guys) and you can understand why I struggled at first in determining who was who and their relationships with one another. In addition to this cultural disconnect, A Field in England is almost completely lacking in character development. None of this amounts to a fatal flaw, however; it becomes clear in time who these men are and what they represent.
While A Field in England is almost singular in its uniqueness, it did strike a reminiscent chord with another film: Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, starring Johnny Depp, released in 1995. It’s not simply that they are shot in black and white (although I imagine the directors’ motivations might have been similar, choosing a medium that emphasizes tone and texture); both films present a rich, atmospheric narrative punctuated with brief disturbing moments of shocking violence. The protagonists in each film are on similar metaphorical journeys steeped in themes of transformation and death. Even with these similarities, however, the viewing experience is vastly different. Still, if you’ve seen and enjoyed Dead Man, then you definitely have the art-house sensibilities needed to truly enjoy A Field in England.
The fact that this motley 17th Century crew spends the majority of A Field in England under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms may seem like a far-fetched mash-up along the lines of Cowboys & Aliens. Nonetheless, Wheatley and writer Amy Jump insist there’s historical support for such a scenario. There’s a definite turning point in the film where the entire tone becomes psychedelic. As anyone experienced with “magic mushrooms” can attest, everything seems more meaningful and symbolic when you’re on a “trip”. This dreamlike symbolism soon permeates all aspects of A Field in England.
One of the film’s biggest successes is the creation of a very real approximation of the sensation of “tripping”. I’m not just talking about a passable visual representation, either; this goes beyond swirls and echoes. The strobe effects forewarned at the film’s onset are nothing less than stunning and hypnotic. Things become nearly 3-dimensional as faces seemingly float free from the screen. It was so intense that it wasn’t even entirely pleasant; I found myself rubbing my eyes and massaging my temples several times. It’s the kind of experimental filmmaking that might be considered arrogant or frivolous if it wasn’t so damn effective!
Ben Wheatley was wise to mine past cast members for important roles in A Field in England. Michael Smiley, Gal from Kill List, is awesome as the evil alchemist O’Neil; Richard Glover, Martin from Sightseers, is hysterical and disarming as the simple-minded but trusting character referred to only as “Friend”. Reece Shearsmith is outstanding as the film’s protagonist and his transformation throughout (from cowardice to bravery) is the emotional backbone of the film. Peter Ferdiando and Ryan Pope round the cast out nicely as Jacob and Cutler respectively. These five men are the only characters in the entire movie; no extras–and not a single woman appears on film.
Some aspects of A Field in England are downright confounding: A thick rope with a man tied to the end, a small tent where Whitehead endures unseen tortures at the hands of O’Neil, a certain character’s inability to stay dead, regurgitated stones… These moments and many others will have viewers scratching their heads in contemplation long after the film has ended. Indeed, the entire tone of the film becomes so surreal, that I began to question the reality of everything—including the field itself, which could be symbolic of any number of things (along with the “Treasure” supposedly buried beneath). A Field in England plays out in an era where the lines between religion, science, and superstition were all incredibly blurry. In this same respect, the borders between reality and insanity are almost impossible to detect.
This film isn’t for everyone. Those seeking a straight-forward, mainstream cinematic experience aren’t likely to make it more than 30 minutes in. Even brave, open-minded aficionados may struggle with certain aspects of A Field in England. But those with the patience and fortitude to endure this nightmare will be able to revel in the brilliant subtext for days.
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