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Should I Watch..? A Field In England
What's the big deal?
A Field In England is a historical, psychological thriller film released in 2013 and is set in the mid 17th century during the English Civil War. Directed by Ben Wheatley, it is shot in black-and-white and is part of a resurgence of the format along with films such as The Artist (1) and Nebraska (2). Despite the unusually comic nature of a number of the cast, the film is a dark and psychedelic vision that can disorientate and confuse the viewer. Like Wheatley's other films like Kill List (3), it is a subversive and stripped down affair with minimal cast and its trippy effects achieved through editing and cinematography.
What's it about?
During a battle amid the English Civil War, an alchemist's assistant named Whitehead escapes the carnage into an adjacent field. Meeting up with fellow deserters Cutler, Friend and Jacob, the four of them decide to make their way to an alehouse to lie low. But Whitehead is no soldier - he has been tasked by his master to retrieve important documents stolen by an Irish treasure-hunter named O'Neill.
Before they can get to the alehouse, they encounter O'Neill who quickly asserts his leadership over the group by telling them of a treasure nearby. Whitehead is forced fed hallucinogens to lead them to the treasure (and prevent him from completing his mission) where O'Neill gets the men to start digging. But what will they find in this strange field and will Whitehead manage to get himself together in time to retrieve his masters belongings?
But if you think that's all there is to it, think again...
Release Date (UK)
5th July, 2013
Drama, Psychological, Thriller
What's to like?
Considering the microscopic budget, Wheatley has done a fantastic job of conjuring up a dark, forgotten corner of English history. Costumes are first-rate and thanks to the monochrome styling, you are forced to look at details you'd ordinarily miss if it was in colour. But the film is grubby and raw, like it was shot using technology from the period. Wheatley also indulges in some mind-messing editing, spinning the screen into a blur and splitting up scenes with apparitions of the dead and the haunting howl of the wind.
Smiley, mostly known for his bit part Tyres in the 90's sitcom Spaced, is a fantastic villain as O'Neill, snarling and sneering at the wretched creatures he has to work with. Equally, Shearsmith - a member of the League Of Gentlemen group of comedians - delivers a wonderfully slimy portrayal of the subservient Whitehead who find himself in urgent need of a backbone. There is next to no comedy in the film but it maintain your interest throughout, primarily so you can figure out what the hell it's all about. At times pretty and others disturbing, the one thing that A Field In England is above all else is different.
- The film was released simultaneously in cinemas, in stores, on TV and via On Demand services on 5th July, 2013, the first home-grown title to do so.
- The production budget for the film, supplied by Film4, is just £300'000. Production took just 12 days and was filmed in Guildford, Surrey.
- For the cinema release in the UK, Weltons Brewery issued a limited-edition ale for people at the theatre. It's tagline was "Open up and let the devil in", tying it with the use of hallucinogens in the film.
What's not to like?
I just felt that it was too much, too heavily reliant on its own smoke-and-mirrors. You never get the sense that the film is going anywhere and a constructive narrative is sometimes difficult to follow. Wheatley's usage of close-ups and his psychedelic sequence in particular do little besides provoke a migraine and worse, it feels indulgent and pretentious. It's like the bit in 2001: A Space Odyssey (4) where Dave is sucked through the Star Gate and we viewers are treated to about ten minutes of dazzling cinema and pretty, spiral patterns but they don't mean anything. Here, we see characters repeatedly rise from the dead and a close-up of O'Neill turning around in slow motion but nothing to suggest what any of it means. Is Wheatley throwing us an impossible puzzle or am I just being stupid?
It's a shame that A Field In England fights to confuse and lose its audience because up until the disappointing climax, I was enjoying myself in a weird way. It's a deeply challenging film and one which is not forgotten easily once seen. I just wished that it was a bit more conventional, allowing me to catch my breath and understand exactly what Wheatley was trying to say. As it is, I am as confused today as I was back when I watched it. It's different but boy, is it complicated.
Should I watch it?
A Field In England has all the makings of a late-night stoners cult classic but as it is, it's an impressive trip through the mists of time to a world of magic, mysticism and mayhem. Those of you new to Wheatley's body of work will be utterly lost by this film which appears to be his most divisive yet. But I, for one, applaud the director for simply trying something new and something that doesn't confirm to any boundaries or expectations.
Great For: pot heads, confusing your mates, Civil War re-enactment societies
Not So Great For: your average cinema-goer, date nights, indie cinema's "difficult" reputation
What else should I watch?
How on Earth can you recommend a film that is so unlike anything else? I can't recall another historical psychedelic drama but I do recall a couple of decent mind-melters. Donnie Darko (5) is one teenager's twisted nightmare where he is haunted by a six-foot tall metal rabbit warning him about the end of the world. Despite this, it's a stunning watch that just about makes sense. Alternatively, you can always rely on Johnny Depp for the unusual and you won't get more unusual than Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (6), Terry Gilliam's bizarre adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's equally bizarre novel.
There are few options out there for English Civil War lovers without having to go to Witchfinder General (7), the 1968 cult horror film with Vincent Price. To Kill A King (8) is a more recent outing exploring the relationship between Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax and at the very least, hasn't a single mushroom in sight.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox