A Field in England is a dark, murky film. It is interesting, weird, and provocative. Ben Wheatley demonstrates what can be accomplished with a small budget, on a single set, with a cast of seven. The influence of earlier filmmakers is present, particularly Peter Watkins’ sixties era work, although the film definitely maintains its own unique spirit.
Worth mentioning is the film’s simultaneous release schedule. It was streamable online and shown on TV on the same day it appeared in cinema. This follows the logic that the best way to combat piracy is not to try to make it impossible to pirate, but rather give everyone who wants to pay for it a way to do so. This bold marketing strategy lets us know how far out of the mainstream this independent film really is.
Set during the English Civil War, it tells the story of a group of deserters. They set off for an alehouse, which always seems to be in one field over. One member of the group, Whitehead, is a man of learning; in stark contrast to the muddy companions he now has. Whitehead has been charged with finding a man called O’Neal. When found, O’Neal quickly takes the group over in order to hunt for a treasure he believes is within the field. After eating wild mushrooms, the group descends into a hallucinogenic fever of madness and despair. As you may have guessed, this film isn’t really about plot, with the screenplay, written by Wheatley’s wife and frequent collaborator Amy Jump, creating a desperate, insane tone. It is a film of crises, with a country in crisis, people forced into a moral crisis, and also into a crisis of faith, as they face the possibility of there being no god, but maybe still a devil.
A sign of the film’s strength is what it can make scary. There is a sequence in which, unseen within a tent, O’Neal brutalises Whitehead. All we hear are Whitehead’s scream of terror and pain, followed by a slow motion sequence of him staggering out of the tent, dragging a rope. The grin or grimace on his face is haunting. Wheatley does not need gore or clichés to disturb you.
All is designed to disorientate. The opening shots of Whitehead stumbling through a hedgerow establish that this is about stumbling into the unknown. It may be the Cromwellian dialogue that throws you, or the experimental directing techniques, with hallucinogenic states of mind reflected by bold, nearly abstract camerawork. At times the cast pose in tableaux, a recreation of medieval paintings, in which we see them strain to maintain stillness in these bizarre positions.
This film accomplishes that which it sets out to do. As such, it is hard to declare any part of it a failure. However, as it sets out to disorientate and confuse, and succeeds in doing so, then it will alienate sections of its audience. The film is filled with provocative imagery, and one can get lost in deriving meaning from them. Is O’Neil just a dark-hearted alchemist, or something satanic? What is the descending orb of darkness? This film has more questions than answers. If the idea of trying to construct your own appeals to you, then check out this bizarre, disturbing piece.
Have you seen ‘A Field in England’? Let us know what you think in the comments.