Somewhere in England there is a field. A terrifying, beautiful field, where the wonders of nature and its darkest horrors collide. In case you’re wondering, it’s in Surrey.
Ben Wheatley, who made the filmgoing world vomit in horror and surprise with his 2011 horror/thriller Kill List, has made quite the name for himself as a director of low-budget, daringly original films. His black comedy Sightseers won plaudits last year, but his latest, A Field in England, is his most triumphant work yet.
Set during the English Civil War, the film follows Whitehead (League of Gentlemen alumnus Reece Shearsmith), an unfortunately named academic charged with tracking down a wayward alchemist named O’Neill (Belfast actor Michael Smiley of Kill List and Spaced fame). When his party becomes cornered during a battle between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads, Whitehead escapes through a large hedge, a veritable rabbit hole in the literary sense, and into ‘the field’.
There he meets a group of three deserters; the bullying Cutler (Ryan Pope), the blunt but decent Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and the Shakespearean fool Friend (Richard Glover), who is apparently too stupid to be killed. The party, lost and bewildered and utterly mismatched, decide to abandon all their goals and head to the pub.
The field, however, is easier entered than exited. Much like Waiting for Godot and similar fictions, you soon realise that the world offstage may not exist at all, and is certainly inaccessible. The field is magic, in its own way, harbouring unseen treasures. A wooden post, carved in runic symbols, when turned opens the doors to this Wonderland still wider.
Soon the formidable O’Neill shows up and using unexplained powers takes command of the group, using Whitehead’s knowledge of ancient books to search for the field’s hidden treasures. O’Neill is happy to stoop to torture to get what he wants. “It does not surprise me that the Devil is an Irishman,” Friend offhandedly remarks.
Shot in startling black and white, A Field in England is an astonishing work, conjuring recollections of many great films without ever feeling unoriginal. O’Neill’s billowing black robe recalls The Seventh Seal, as does the black humour found amongst the peasant characters, but that is as far as that comparison goes. Wind whips through the long grass, bringing to mind Tarkovsky’s Mirror. Often moments freeze in time, as if the characters were posing for an unseen painter – the whole film feels as if Derek Jarman and Peter Greenway had raised a demented child together. And that can only be a good thing.
Laurie Rose’s soft focus nature photography reveals the simple natural beauties of rural Britain, while his close-ups on the character’s mud-caked faces reveal an attention to detail in this £300,000 production that is nothing short of amazing. When O’Neill force-feeds the company magic mushrooms, a kaleidoscopic Stargate opens that brings you through one of the most dizzying and brain-melting film experiences in recent memory. If it’s at all pretentious, at least it commits to it, and then some.
There is so much invention in this film, from a deafening cannonball volley to a simple CGI eclipse created by a disc of dark cloud. Even the opening, a splatter of ferns and drumbeats, drags you by the throat into its period nightmare. It never really lets go.
But it’s in its script that A Field of England truly stands out. Written by Amy Jump, who wrote Kill List, the film features remarkable use of period language while also having a superb sense of mannish banter. Wit drips from the page, such as when the bookish Whitehead excuses his lack of interaction with people, admitting: “I find pages easier to turn than people.”
Wheatley fans may find his latest a little obtuse, although it is far more forthcoming with its drama than some similar mind-bending art films. The typical Wheatley body horror is uncommon in this film, but when it comes is jaw-plungingly effective. A close-up of Jacob’s penis, revealing he has every illness known to science – “except plague” – is as hilarious as it is revolting. While Glover gets all the best lines, it is Smiley who dominates here. O’Neill is one of the most intimidating and disturbing (and disturbingly entertaining) villains to appear in a film for years. While the rest of the cast chew mushrooms, he chews the remainder of the English countryside. It is a sickening delight to behold.
In an ambitious turn by Film 4, A Field in England opens in cinemas today concurrent with its release on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. Even more pioneeringly, the film will be broadcast on Film 4 on the very night of its release. Audiences now have few excuses to miss one of the most startling, disturbing and ambitious films of the year.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)