A Field In England
A visually epic, organically-addled, Jodorowskian fever dream of a film Ben Wheatley’s enigmatic period piece A Field In England proved surprisingly challenging yet immersive viewing. A sleep or so later its hooks have sunk deeper into me; I need to see this film again!
Many will be familiar the UK director’s previous NZIFF programmed films, psychological horror Kill List (2011) and black ‘serial killer’ comedy Sightseers (2012), both of which proved popular with the genre loving ‘Incredibly Strange’ crowd and beyond. If, like me, you’ve done minimal research into this new work, you might reasonably expect A Field In England to be a period piece version of the same kind of twisting, (possibly levity spiced) creepy narrative he’s delivered up until now. Perhaps the (hopefully better quality) Your Highness to his Pineapple Express? The Meek’s Cutoff to his Wendy and Lucy? Well, like me, you’d be wrong. A Field In England is another in a string of singular viewing experiences I’ve enjoyed at NZIFF 2013 (e.g. Bujalski’s Computer Chess and Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing) and is as far removed from Kill List as Computer Chess is from Mutual Appreciation. And yet the film is unmistakably a Wheatley film, folding his idiosyncratic visual style and regular cast of collaborators into its inky surrealist depths.
Set during the 17th century English Civil War the plot, such as it is, follows the fortunes of Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), servant to an apparently powerful alchemist and tasked with recovering some stolen writings by apprehending the thief. We meet him at the film’s beginning, mid-battle, hiding in a hedgerow from an angry pursuer. After extricating himself from hedge and pursuer alike Whitehead falls in with two other lost souls Jacob and ‘Friend’ (Peter Ferdinando & Richard Glover) and self appointed guide Cutler (Ryan Pope) who become Homeric travelling companions of a sort–not unlike the trio in the Coen Brothers’ 2000 reimagining of The Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou?–on an ill-fated, mysterious quest driven by forces they do not understand and personified by ‘the devil’ O’Neil (an intimidating Michael Smiley). Along the way there is mushroom consumption, care of the obliging eponymous Field, at which point what scant narrative structure there has been completely breaks down.
Shot in black and white, with an array of styles and tones employed, A Field In England is punctuated at intervals by a series of painterly compositions; solid visual signposts in a constantly shifting narrative landscape. Instead of using still shots the director films the actors paused in various poses/situations incorporating the slight movements of actual people holding still with the wind blowing around them. Between these ‘signposts’ there may be standard walking and talking, a mushroom fueled trip sequence, or even a full on psychedelic episode communicated via an exercise in kaleidoscopic editing (the film is preceded by a warning regarding strobed lighting effects etc) straight out of Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain compositional playbook (Refn sit up and take note). For a black and white feature the film is lush and rich with light, tone and movement. The film’s soundscape proves the equal of its visuals; wrestling control of your senses to the point where you just let the experience wash over you. And wash it does, with its cyclic dialogue and action sequences, combative religious and political imagery, and mysterious Melancholia riffing black disc of doom.
Wheatley delivers a film experience as English as anything he has done to date and yet as unexpected and mind boggling as first-encountered surrealism. The best thing, for this viewer at least, is that all the elements cohere into a film that conveys in tone and feel something of the essence of the historical changes beginning to be wrought by the civil war in which the film is set. You can be damn sure that A Field In England won’t work for all Wheatley fans but for this fan it has set the director and his work in a new, more interesting light. But perhaps it all just the cine-mushrooms?
Rating: M Violence and offensive language.