United Kingdom. Directed by Ben Wheatley, 2013. Starring Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Richard Glover. 90 minutes.
Trapped on a battlefield of the English Civil War, the coward (Reece Shearsmith) hides. His name is Whitehead, and he is–or maybe was–the apprentice of a mighty alchemist. His master gave him a task–to capture and arrest a man who stole from his library–and he failed. Now he hides from the bloodthirsty mercenary hired to kill him.
Yet his life is fortuitously saved by Cutler (Ryan Pope), a disillusioned soldier in Cromwell’s New Model Army. He has no wish to return to his regiment, and along with two fellow soldiers, the coarse Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and the simple Friend (Richard Glover), decide to desert in favor of an evening of debauchery at a nearby alehouse. Whitehead has little choice but to join them, and hopes he may yet find a way back into his master’s graces.
Yet Cutler is not all he seems. After feeding Jacob and Friend stew spiked with hallucinogenic mushrooms (Whitehead declines, as he is fasting until his task is complete), he leads his three companions to a field and affects the bizarre rescue of the Irishman O’Neil (Michael Smiley). This is the man Whitehead seeks, yet he’s in no position to apprehend the thief.
In this field, O’Neil tells Whitehead, there is a great treasure. He wishes to claim it, and use it to pay off his many debts before absconding to the continent. Yet as powerful as his magic is, he must grudgingly admit that some of Whitehead’s gifts are superior. Whitehead will help him find the treasure. He doesn’t need to say what will happen to Whitehead and his companions once the treasure is found.
Whitehead has little to depend on if he expects to survive this ordeal. His powers are meager, and Jacob and Friend can offer little aid in their addled state. But beneath the apprentice’s feet lies a potent ally. Can he find it in time and save himself?
I have a strong feeling that A Field in England is going to be one of those heavily polarizing movies. Everyone who sees it is either going to love it or hate it. And predictably, I find myself somewhere in the middle.
Ben Wheatley’s segment of The ABCs of Death piqued my interest; Kill List and Sightseers cemented my fandom. He’s an original voice in the genre, with a keen eye, strong casting skills and an ability to work within a number of genres. (Kill List is a cross between a torture porn-ish crime thriller and The Wicker Man; Sightseers is a deeply unsentimental black comedy with a wide streak of social commentary.) He’s capable of accessible work (he cut his teeth directing television, and continues to work in the medium; in fact, he’s directing two episodes of the upcoming season of Doctor Who), but he’s not afraid to take risks or try weird things. Bottom line, you watch a Ben Wheatley film, you know you’re going to get something a little different.
Or, in the case of A Field in England, a lot different. The word “psychedelic” gets used a lot when describing it, and to be fair there are sequences like that and they’re the ones which most audiences will remember most. But even the word “psychedelic” makes the film sound like it’s going to be much less weird than it actually is. It’s one thing for a film to present a psychedelic sequence. It’s quite another thing to present said sequence in black and white, in 2014.
To Wheatley’s credit, most of the risks he takes works. The film’s tone is largely serious yet he casts comedic actors in the lead roles: Shearsmith was a member of the sketch-comedy troupe The League of Gentlemen, while Smiley is a former stand-up comedian and veteran of Spaced. Both are excellent, with Shearsmith perfectly embodying Whitehead’s obsequiousness and cowardice, with occasional glints of madness, while Smiley’s interpretation of O’Neil as an arrogant bastard is perfection. The rest of the cast is also strong, with Glover’s Friend being a particular highlight, and Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh making the most of a brief cameo.
The photography is also excellent. The germ of an idea that grew into A Field in England is Wheatley’s desire to film an entire movie in a single location, and despite the open expanse the field offers, the film often oozes claustrophobia from its pores (aided, apparently, by a jury-rigged camera lens that DP Laurie Rose describes as having “a focus of about a foot” and producing an image that is “super sharp, but everything that falls off behind it is utterly out of focus.”)
On the other hand, some of the production’s less conventional elements are hit-and-miss. The psychedelic sequence is appropriately mind-bending but goes on a bit too long and is likely to annoy audiences who don’t like strobing and flashing images. A musical number sung by Glover will delight you if you’re up for that sort of thing, but will drag the action out if you’re not. And, every so often, the actors will interrupt the action and hold their pose for a minute or so. I’m not sure what Wheatley is getting at with these sequences, and I found the effect rather like those ersatz “freeze-frames” that used to end episodes of Police Squad!
For better or worse, A Field in England is a film that demands the viewer’s complete attention, with several characters’ actions not making much sense without scrutiny of what has happened before. Unclear of what exactly was supposed to be going on during O’Neil’s “rescue,” I watched the sequence several times but finding myself no less confounded after each viewing. It was only after watching the film again from the very beginning that I was able to formulate a theory about what was going on, although there’s still several things I’m unclear on.
A Field in England is quite an accomplishment and I respect it for even existing in the first place, but I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t try my patience. At a couple of points, only my faith in Ben Wheatley kept me from abandoning it entirely. I’m glad I didn’t, but I also can’t bring myself to blame viewers who do.