Review: A Field In England

On July 10, 2013 by Jim Law
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Reviewed by Darren Goodfellow

It’s almost impossible to review ‘A Field In England’ as it is utterly unlike any film I have seen to date. Dense to the point of impenetrability, uneven in tone and willfully cruel in it’s refusal to explain even the smallest of details, it is a film that is sure to anger as much of the audience as it will delight.

‘A Field In England’ begins (and ends) with the sound of battle ringing in a man’s ears as he struggles to push his way through a hedge. It’s the perfect metaphor for both watching the film and trying to review it. At the basest level, the film is about an apprentice scholar, Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), running away from a battle, having failed in his mission to locate the traitorous Occultist, O’Neil (Michael Smiley). Joining up with a band of fellow “cowards” and resolving to leave the fighting behind and find a pub, the men are soon led into a trap, orchestrated by O’Neil, who forces Whitehead to help him locate a buried treasure in the titular field. Soon however, it becomes clear that they might be digging for something other than gold.

Except, it never really does become clear what they are digging for. In fact, those few lines of summation only came together after several days thought and analysis. The film does everything in it’s power to hide or flat-out deny you plot details. Where other films infer, ‘A Field In England’ obscures. For instance, no explanation is given as to how the men “conjure” O’Neil into the field. No explanation is given as to the runes that Whitehead inexplicably vomits out at one point. I had hoped that the “corrupt planet” that appears over the field would be explained but, alas, no. There’s also an even bigger “How did that happen?” moment at the end of the film but I won’t spoil it. Needless to say, it goes unexplained. There are also moments where the characters freeze on screen, recreating the tableaus of a hundred different Renaissance paintings. Why they do it and to what it means, I cannot say. Luckily the film has several very strong counterpoints to this obtuseness otherwise I would have gave up on the film after only twenty minutes.

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Directed by Ben Wheatley, a workaholic who has given us ‘Down Terrace’, ‘Kill List’ and ‘Sightseers’* in the last four years, ‘A Field In England’ has all of his trademark style on display; naturalistic dialogue, ultra violence and pitch black humour. What sets it apart from his other work is astonishing visuals and editing. In previous films, Wheatley had used careful editing to confuse the viewer, playing events out of sequence, in order to fuel a twist or reveal at the end. Here, Wheatley uses the editing of the film like a weapon, bludgeoning the senses and warping your mind. One of the (few) clear plot points has the men being fed mushrooms that grow in the field. They are not button mushrooms. They are “magic” mushrooms. As such, very little of what we see on screen can be trusted. Is it real or is it hallucination? Wheatley uses this to tremendous effect in the mid-point of the film, in a stunning sequence where the screen splits, overlays itself, runs backward and inverts at an ever-quickening pace. It’s a dizzying effect – in fact the film starts with a strobe warning about the sequence – that runs from impressive to nauseous. I’ve never taken mushrooms so I can’t vouch for how well the sequence recreates the experience but if it’s even one tenth as intense as what is on screen, I think I’ll pass.

With only six parts in the film (one of which lasts barely two minutes; spoilers, I guess) it is often reminiscent of a stage play. As such, the focus on performance is very strong. Reece Shearsmith as Whitehead is astonishing, giving his character a pathetic nobility even when suffering tremendous abuse. As the abuser, Michael Smiley also excels as O’Neil. Given that the film infers that he is a Sorcerer of some kind it would have been easy for Smiley to play O’Neil broad and while he does swish his cloak about plenty, he grounds the character in the same “shit and thistles” world that the others inhabit. Equally as great are Peter Ferdinando and Richard Glover, who play the two unfortunate men who get dragged into this occult game. Ferdinando’s saltiness works in great contrast to Glover’s sweet, empty-headiness, though if I’m honest, I could have done without the lingering close up on Ferdinando’s disease-ridden penis. Ryan Pope is also fine but has less material to work with so leaves less of an impression as O’Neil’s put upon servant.

Populated by actors who are known in the U.K for their comedic work**, I expected it to be a lighter affair than some of Wheatley’s other works and while there are jokes, the film is instead more concerned with bending your mind than amusing it. Although I did particularly enjoy one man’s dying message to his wife, one of the few moments where the film’s oppressive atmosphere lifts.

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How much you’ll take from the film is dependent upon your tolerance for the surreal and the unexplained. The single most terrifying moment of the film happens behind a tent flap, with a minute long sequence of screams indicating that something awful is happening inside. I had goosebumps from head to toe, especially when Shearsmith emerges from the tent, walking in slow motion through the field with an awful, rictus grin on his face but some viewers will be frustrated at the lack of naked explanation as to what happened to him . The film also builds to an unexpectedly modern – and disappointing -climax. After all of the weirdness that had gone before, I had expected something a little more interesting to close out the film.

Defying easy categorization, ‘A Field In England’ is a blend of drama, horror, comedy and art house; a psychedelic journey into madness, interspersed with witchcraft and sadism. Shot in striking black and white by Cinematographer Laurie Rose – I really can’t emphasize how good it looks – and with a haunting Philip Glass-esque score by James Williams, the film exudes a quality that films with budgets fifty times larger fail to achieve, which is all the more remarkable when you consider that it was shot for only £300,000 over twelve days.

Of further interest, is the release pattern for the film. Released in UK cinemas, on freeview TV, on DVD and on Video-on-Demand on July 5th, the film is one of the first to receive funding from the BFI’s New Models Distribution Fund, which was established to support new release models, in an effort to combat piracy and stimulate growth in the film industry. While as yet unreleased in the U.S and Canada, Drafthouse Films has announced it has picked up the North American rights to ‘A Field in England’ and is planning a theatrical and VOD release for the film in 2013.

I enjoyed ‘A Field In England’ very much but it’s surreal atmosphere will alienate many people but if you fancy watching something original, a film that dares to throw your expectations back in your face then I cannot recommend it highly enough. Just don’t sit down to watch it if you’ve had some “special”mushrooms beforehand; if you do, I doubt you’ll survive it.

Grade: B –

*Each of which are either supremely depressing or hilarious depending on your worldview but are definitely worth checking out. ‘Kill List’, which I found to be utterly horrible – in a good way – is

**Reece Shearsmith is best known for his work as part of ‘The League Of Gentlemen’ – not to be confused with the terrible adaptation of Alan Moore’s fantastic graphic novel – the British TV series that focused on the awful village of Royston Vasey and it’s freakish inhabitants. It’s a hilarious series that is as weird and horrible as anything in ‘A Field In England’ but with more laughs and more deformity. I’d also urge anyone who doesn’t know Michael Smiley to check out his turn as Tyres in ‘Spaced’, the TV series that launched the careers of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Never has a man raving to the background sounds of a flat been done so well as it has in Smiley’s hands. Julian Barratt of ‘The Might Boosh’ appears for all of two minutes. He shouts a bit and has a moustache.

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