Twitter Plot Summary: Four deserters from the Civil War end up in a field, take some hallucinogenic mushrooms and dig for buried treasure. Standard.
Director: Ben Wheatley
Key Cast: Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Robert Glover, Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando, Ryan Pope.
Five Point Summary:
1. Nice field.
2. What’s going on in that tent? Do I want to find out?
3. Why is he vomiting up stones?
4. He dead! Or is he? OR IS HE?!
5. Er… so what just happened?
A Field In England is a head trip. Shot in black and white and on a meagre budget, the story sees a disparate group of men from both sides of the conflict (or even neither) convene in a field away from the fight and, at the suggestion of one of them, decide to visit a nearby pub. They’re soon press-ganged into searching the field for buried treasure by an incredibly menacing Michael Smiley.
You may very well question what you’re watching. I certainly did at first. I actually found quite a bit of it amusing, but then I laughed at The Human Centipede Part 2, so I have a strong suspicion that I may be a little twisted in the head. That or I’m attuned to the black humour on offer. One scene sees a character taking time out to defecate over some nettles. You may consider things like this to be superfluous, but it’s another layer of, admittedly humorous, characterisation before the hammer comes down, so to speak.
An incredibly disturbing sequence sees Whitehead tortured (or worse – there’s definitely a hint of supernatural goings-on) by Smiley’s O’Neil, and then turned into a human divining rod. It’s a scene that will go down best late at night, equal parts surreal and terrifying. Soon enough, and after much digging for the treasure Whitehead has enough and resolves to be his own man – so naturally he hides from O’Neil and eats a few mushrooms.
And then it all gets weird. As if it wasn’t weird already.
There are a lot of questions raised. Despite the fact there’s a battle taking place just on the other side of the hedge, the sounds of combat are quickly lost and our characters are soon alone and isolated. A subtle metaphor for passing on, perhaps? Are they all dead? Is O’Neil actually the Devil? Is it Purgatory/Hell/Just a big field? It can be seen from many angles, that everything is happening as we see it, that they are tripping on mushrooms, or that they have descended into Hell/Purgatory after (maybe) dying in the battle. Without giving anything away, you will make up your own mind after seeing the end. Some would argue otherwise, but to me it’s a perfect example of spot-on scriptwriting and film making.
I’ve yet to see any of Wheatley’s other films (I have Kill List lined up and Sightseers was yet another of my 2012 cinema misses), but if this is anything to go by I’m sure I’ll love them. He has a particular style that combines traditional filmmaking with an avant-garde mixture of techniques including fast-cutting between two images to simulate a trip on magic mushrooms. Before everything goes crazy Wheatley uses several long, lingering shots and puts the focus on the characters. Probably a good job given that the only backdrop is a field and a few trees. Rather positively you never grow weary of the simple backdrop, Wheatley finds many interesting ways of framing the story.
It’s not an accessible film by any stretch, more likely than not most people who see it will either not have a clue what’s going on or simply find the surrealist narrative impenetrable. If you’ve ever watched Jam, Chris Morris’ surreal sketch show, then you’re off to a good start. It’s a disorienting experience throughout, from the initial first person perspective as Whitehead emerges from the hedge into the field, to the trip-out sequence after he indulges in a ring of mushrooms.
Throw in a smattering of Police Squad-style “freeze frame” moments (which are called “tableau vivant” – living pictures), a man getting his lad out, and Whitehead randomly vomiting up stones with strange symbols inscribed on them, and you have something original that hearkens back to the glory days of British horror. In years to come I would hope that A Field in England is placed alongside Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man as a classic of the genre. Suffice to say this one’s going to be a permanent resident in my collection.
Favourite scene: The torture of Whitehead. Terrifying. Truly terrifying.
Quote: “It does not surprise me that the Devil is an Irishman. Though I thought perhaps he might be a bit taller.”
Silly Moment: Man having his “parts” examined, and being told he has almost every disease under the sun except plague.