‘A Field in England’ Review
British director Ben Wheatley isn’t content to make the same kind of film over and over again. His last two films — ‘Kill List’ and ‘Sightseers’ — offered different tones and delightfully sinister surprises; the only consistency is Wheatley’s attraction to dark, subversive material and his ability to capture that material with a particularly keen and appreciative eye. With ‘A Field in England,’ Wheatley returns with yet another unexpected work: an intense, abstract, and intensely abstract trip (literally and figuratively).
An alchemist’s assistant named Whitehead abandons the Civil War in 17th century England, and takes up with a trio of fellow deserters named Jacob and Friend in — where else — a field. Along the way, the group encounter an Irishman named O’Neill, whom Whitehead has been sent to arrest for stealing his master’s documents and artifacts. And then some of the men eat some peculiar mushrooms, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Though the plot on paper is seemingly simplistic, the script (courtesy of Amy Jump) is razor-sharp and relentlessly engaging. ‘A Field in England’ isn’t just a trippy drug romp through a field in 17th century England, nor is it an excuse to dress actors in period-appropriate costumes for the sake of gimmick. Utilizing black and white cinematography and occasionally posing the actors in still-life imitations reminiscent of classic theater, Wheatley presents a disturbing portrait of men fighting for control over their own lives and destinies as these deserters struggle for direction under the oppression of their new enigmatic leader.
‘A Field in England’ is a precise character study that also captures a specific era in England, as alchemy — the marriage of science and religion that lent itself to sorcery — was on the verge of division. This isn’t to say that the film is particularly deep or poignant, as Wheatley’s films are often more about cast definition and plot; your film doesn’t need to have a purpose or message if it’s extraordinarily focused, with well-executed story and perspective of character. This is where Wheatley excels, but even more so here in his divisive new film, which starts veering off the rails early on, going from a dialogue-heavy narrative to a psychedelic experiment in the futility, as Whitehead fights against the sinister O’Neill, who seems to have some sort of magical hold over his new compatriots. And drugs don’t seem to help anything, as they either enhance or exacerbate — exploiting vulnerabilities and insecurities in some, and accentuating positive qualities in others.
But when Whitehead reaches his wit’s end, he believes consuming the mushrooms will allow him to consume all the evil O’Neill has put out into the field, and therefore the apprentice will be able to combat the sorcerer — it’s nightmare logic realized to its fullest extent, embellished with equally psychedelic cinematography from Wheatley, who uses kaleidoscopic and stroboscopic tricks to hypnotize the audience into a similarly druggish state.
‘A Field in England’ is definitely more experience than traditional movie, and one that will test the viewer’s patience and rationale. There’s a moment in the film when O’Neill takes Whitehead into a tent and performs a presumably violent act on his adversary. When they emerge, Whitehead is tied to a rope, eyes rolling about his head, leading O’Neill into the field like a drugged-up, mentally challenged bloodhound. At times, ‘A Field in England’ seems to have a similar effect on the viewer, asking you to lead yourself through the experience, while Wheatley follows behind with the leash.
A brilliant, uncompromising and deliberate experiment set in a very specific time, in a very specific place, and under incredibly specific conditions, ‘A Field in England’ is a wonderfully bizarre microcosm of abstraction.