The latest offering from the darling of the British critical community Ben Wheatley, A Field in England is a psychological-historical drama set during the Civil War. An example of a growing trend, the film was released simultaneously in cinemas as well as on DVD, download and on TV. This multi-platform release meant that on 5th July there was no excuse as to why anyone couldn’t see it. Personally, I watched it on the free-to-air Film 4, the film’s primary funder.
The movie blends genres and styles but features a pleasing cinematographic style which oozes confidence. The choice to film in black and white feels at first to be a misjudgement but as it progresses; the beauty of the monochrome is exposed. There are some stunning landscapes and close-ups captured which juxtapose the attractive, relaxed landscape with the anguish and torment of the characters. Those characters suffer from little development and much confusion but are lit and filmed with utmost care and professionalism.
It’s difficult to really describe what happens in the film because to be honest I’m not really sure. What I can say is that the film pits various ideas and beliefs against one another in the setting of political turmoil (in a field). Science battles sorcery while stout religious belief comes up against rampant paganism. There is also conflict between the soldier and the scholar and at times these conflicts come as a barrage of two or more at once. This barrage also comes complete with sharp tongues and bullets in a hunt for treasure which ends in psychedelic bloodshed.
It took me a long time to get in to the film and I can’t say that I ever really enjoyed it. The dialogue was often impenetrable yet sometimes dull while as I’ve already alluded to, the plot doesn’t really go anywhere. Enjoyment that comes from spending time with the characters is hampered by muddying of their traits and values and confusion as to who is who in the early stages. Perhaps it was the heat of this sweltering July evening but it took me much longer than usual to work out what was going on and why.
The narrative as well as the cinematography verge on the avant-garde and I was instantly reminded of 1970s European cinema. Unlike many of these films though, there seemed to be no message coming from A Field in England, at least if there was, it was lost on me. I was sometimes frustrated by the film as although it looked spectacular, it was lacking in so many other areas. Wheatley stamps his violent, bloody eye on the movie and his dark sense of humour is always present and it is these moments which bring the film a sense of reality which it lacks in some of the other scenes.
Despite this statement, my favourite sequence is also the most unusual and occurs when a character ingests hallucinogenic mushrooms. It’s a wonderfully abstract and deeply unnerving scene which remains both beautiful and surreal in equal measure. It always feels as though the film is building to this scene and it’s a joy when it arrives. It certainly helps to make up for some of the confusion I suffered earlier in the movie.
Reece Shearsmith stars in a rare film role. He’s very good and sticks to familiar ground of the dark and twisted. Ryan Pope is also excellent and Richard Glover gets some laughs. Overall A Field in England feels like half a great film. It has a beautiful and effective visual style and some wonderful artistic touches. It sounds great and is well acted but its avant-garde nature is sometimes wearisome, I found it confusing and it didn’t lead anywhere.