A Field in England is an understandable, yet incomprehensible film. At once a fantasy, a period drama and an acid trip, this is not your everyday summer flick. Of course, the everyday has never particularly interested director Ben Wheatley.
The best I could make out, this film is mostly about three characters: two deserters from the English Civil War and a wizard’s apprentice. These people are then forced at a henchman’s gunpoint to serve said wizard’s other apprentice, who has gone treasure hunting. Said service consists of digging a bloody great hole in a field. I’m not sure what they were digging for, nor do I think it matters much. This is not the kind of film concerned with reasons. This is a film about characters and sensory brutality.
Recently, Warner Bros released a movie about Superman. It was bad, in a supremely stupid way, with the absolute dullard moment being a scene where Pa Kent runs into a tornado to save a dog. Sure, it makes sense in a broad way (Pa Kent is good, good people save dogs), but think any deeper than that and you realise that a man with a family who loves him and needs him, just gave his life to save a dumb animal. That’s not a well-considered action. Of course, if we in the audience had first been briefed that the dog was a massively important member of the household, vital to the emotional stability of Superman or some such thing, then the action would have been more heroic. We are never given this briefing though, and without such a personalised motivation, we are left to watch Pa Kent throw his life away in the most ridiculous manner possible.
The contrast with A Field in England is that there are no generalities within Ben Wheatley’s film. The script (by Wheatley and Amy Jump) is sharp enough to chop vegetables. The beginning of the film is a disorientating whirl of period costume, with the black-and-white film’s absence of colour serving to remove any immediately distinguishing features. Yet, my initial inability to tell people apart did not matter. Within minutes of the film’s beginning, I had a clear grasp of all introduced characters. There was the gentle, cowardly Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), the gruff, independent Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), the clownish Friend (Richard Glover) and the over-friendly Cutler (Ryan Pope). These characters then proceeded to act and change in a sensible fashion. Jacob for example, develops from a prideful loner to Whitehead’s comrade, through first sympathy, then genital-centric gratitude. The result is that the little bit of the human mind that finds robots creepy, the bit that knows when another human is not quite right, was not triggered by A Field in England. This is film with characters that can be believed in.
However, this is not to say A Field in England is an easy watch. As was clear from his second feature Kill List, Ben Wheatley has a real penchant for sensory overload. The sewer sequence of Kill List, which remains in my memory as a mess of dark tunnels, pale flesh, terrible masks, glinting knives and the sound of demonic howling, is a work of horror that clings to my mind even now. A Field in England is similarly sticky, possessed of sequences of alien chaos and fork-on-pottery discomfort. Sometimes, watching the film, I felt as if I was watching Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared on an endless loop. Like that nightmarish short, A Field in England aims to flay the nerves and batter the mind until it reels. It’s completely disorientating, an effect which, when combined with the excellent character work, is a little confusing. Is the film trying to engage us, or alienate us?
Honestly, I suspect it’s trying to do both. I don’t get the impression Wheatley imagined A Field in England as a neat narrative, and I’m particularly happy he didn’t. This is not Mud, not a film to rent and enjoy for the simple competence of the storytelling. This is a film that intends to leave an impact. You’ll laugh, you’ll squirm, you’ll wonder why act breaks are marked with impromptu posing, and you’ll remember those experiences long after you leave the cinema. I still have no idea what was going on in A Field in England. However I also know that, beyond the opaque symbols, the film worked magnificently.