[BD Review] ‘A Field in England’ Is a Stunning and Horrifying Trip

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In a short amount of time, British director Ben Wheatley has become one of the most renowned genre filmmakers alive. And the great thing is, he doesn’t seem to give a damn about breaking into the mainstream. Case in point: his new film, A Field in England, is his fourth film and easily his least accessible. It’s an experiment in mood and abstruse narrative that is probably a parable for…something. Much like his celebrated hitman-folk-horror success Kill List, A Field in England demands multiple viewings. It’s difficult to grasp after seeing only once, that’s for sure. What I can confidently say is that Ben Wheatley’s rabbit hole is an exhilarating and horrifying place that refuses to be easily pigeonholed – all reasons it should be seen and celebrated. Sober or on the hallucinogen of your choice.

On the surface, the story is about four people who decide to take a break from the 17th century English Civil War to go for a beer. They’re not cowards deserting the battlefield – no, they’re just thirsty. One of them, Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) doesn’t even belong in battle. He’s an alchemist’s assistant who enjoys lace-making in his spare time. His “master” has tasked him to find a former partner who’s stolen some crucial documents. He’s joined by soldiers Cutler (Ryan Pope) and Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), and a nameless man with a penchant for singing and rising from the dead (Richard Glover). Together they travel across the eponymous field in search of a pub.

Whitehead finds the man he is looking for, an Irishman named O’Neil (Michael Smiley), at the end of a rope that he and the others pull in. This is, of course, only after they’re tripping on the hallucinogenic mushrooms peppered throughout the field. This film might be the first drug movie set during the English Civil War, and if it’s not, it’s got to be the best. While the moments leading up to this point contain a strong sense of mystery, the rest of the movie is a terror of audio-visual surrealism and bravado.

The power struggle between the five men provides the core of the film’s conflict, but any formal narrative structure is tossed aside in favor of more visceral experiences. You know, like when you trip on shrooms and vomit up stones inscribed with runes (yes, this happens). The film also contains the most mesmerizing and unsettling scene I’ve seen in a movie all year: a man coming out of a tent in slow-motion. It may not sound like much, but it’s a long shot that crawls under your skin and filled with me an unshakable feeling of dread.

Frequent Wheatley cinematographer Laurie Rose’s stunning black and white work adds serious weight to the film’s horrific beauty. He succeeds in making a quiet, breezy field the last place in the world you’d want to be. There are several tableaus throughout the film in which actors are frozen in place while the camera moves around them. These gorgeous but unnerving moments resemble eerie religious paintings. Backing up the beautiful visuals are some seriously incredible audio flourishes that range from bursts of hellish screams to indecipherable whispered prayers. Everything in this film is part of a gloriously wicked puzzle.

The film never sinks too deep into the abyss though. Wheatley and writer Amy Jump offer up moments of relief in the form of their trademark dark humor. The language in the film is a clever mix of olde English and contemporary cursing. It’s a blast to hear the five actors relish every line they deliver. Michael Smiley (Kill List) is hypnotically sinister as O’Neil, the junior alchemist obsessed with locating a treasure hidden in the field. It’s unclear what his purpose is or what exactly this “treasure” may be, but what is clear is that if O’Neil wants it, it’s probably not good for the rest of the blokes.

The breakaway actor in the film is certainly Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentlemen) as Whitehead. He’s the most level-headed of the bunch and he possesses strong convictions towards astrology and magic. Eventually though, he out-insanes and out-trips everyone else. If anyone gets something resembling a character arc in the film, it’s him. Whitehead’s journey bookends the film, as he goes from A to B and back to A again. What isn’t evident though is why he makes such an arc. His character, who is also a man of God, doesn’t find redemption or any sugary bullshit like that. If anything, he becomes the devil incarnate.

Following the mother of all 17th century hallucinatory barrages (it comes with a strobe warning), the film does stumble a bit. It ends then starts up again a few times – the screen oftentimes cutting to black in between. Then again, I didn’t want the film to end at all, so I shouldn’t be complaining. With A Field in England, Ben Wheatley further establishes himself as a sentinel of contemporary arthouse genre cinema. Anyone who needs a traditional narrative will find it difficult to sit though this cinematic assault, but those who enjoy having their minds blown out the back of their skulls will certainly enjoy the remarkable trip.

Official Score

  • BabyJaneHudson

    “Easily his least accessible” – love it! I really enjoyed Kill List and Wheatley has been on my radar ever since. Definitely not a filmmaker you’d share with all of your friends, but great for a quiet night alone when you can give him your full attention.

  • mobstar67

    i guess im just not with it….
    i loved Ben Wheatleys “Kill List” , thought it to be an outstanding film….Truly disturbing so i couldnt tell you how excited i was to check “A Field In England” out….
    The only way to descibe this film was a whole lot of nothing..I know im setting myself up to be labled someone who “just dont get it” and “the art was just to deep for me” …so be it.. I normally love British cinema and i can do wierd and complex but i found this one to be kind of a waste.

    • Patrick-Cooper

      Naw man, I didn’t “get it” either. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy the beauty and the horror. I can’t explain everything I saw, but I loved the experience.

      • AzurServal

        I’m in total agreement… I can’t claim to ‘get it’ either… I spent most of the film thinking, ‘What the fuck am I watching?!’
        It’s funny, when I expressed that to some of my friends later, they assumed that I meant that I hadn’t liked it. But it was weird and interesting ride, as far as I was concerned. And the longer I watched, the more ridiculous the look on my face must have become, the more I honestly enjoyed it. I don’t go for weird-for-weird’s-sake either or for films that simply want to be trippy, artsy or pretentious. I suppose I could stomach an argument that this film treads that water… I at least understand what about it would leave someone feeling that way… but that wasn’t the way it left me feeling. The acting felt too honest to me, the smeary grit of it, too real. It felt like a storyteller sharing their strangest dream with me. For me, it worked.

  • Baphomitt

    Woah… “one of the most renowned genre filmmakers alive”? Settle down buddy…

    • mobstar67

      im settled believe me…
      and i get that Ben Wheatly is a promising film maker..
      The measuring stick to me for this film was Ben Wheatly’s Kill List which i thought was one of the best horror/thrillers of 2011…It didint measure close.Not even close to Down Terrace which was a different genre but a solid film none the less..
      i wanted to like “A Field In England” and after coming away scrathcing my head i researched as much as possible to get a better understanding of the film then viewed it a second time and i will say that i didnt get the beauty..what i saw were Black & white shots of a empty field..Costumes, art and makeup were nothing spectacular also..so im not getting the whole visually stunning thing..
      one thing on the positive was the films soundtrack…very intense and if anything was gonna carry this film that was it…
      but im not sold on “A Field In England” myself..you fellas enjoy though..I’ll wait and see what Mr Wheatly gives us next before i title him “most Renowned”

      • horrorking95

        I agree with you. I absolutely loved Kill List, I think it’s the best British horror film since Eden Lake and I liked Down Terrace too. However, I was disappointed with this. I found it hard to follow thanks to the olde England speak and it was also very slow to get going. I was quite bored through most of it. The tripping scene was quite amazing though and I loved the music. The finale was exciting too. It played on my mind afterward so it wasn’t all bad. I need to see it again really.