A Field In England is bound to divide opinion; it may even be designed to do so. The latest offbeat offering from director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers, Down Terrace) is a weird, trippy English Civil War film (a largely ignored genre thus far) shot in black and white on a micro-budget. It’s not an easy watch but it’s never anything but compelling.
Reece Sheersmith’s Whitehead is a nervous, would-be scholar who is freed from his bullying commander (The Mighty Boosh‘s Julian Barratt) during a skirmish only to find himself in the company of a group of deserters headed by O’Neill (Michael Smiley), an alchemist who determines that Whitehead will help him divine hidden treasure in the field of the title.
And so a lot of wandering around said field begins, interspersed with meandering conversations (Last thing I ate was a stoat. A Welsh one at that¦) and some great panoramic shots of swaying fields under cumulus-heavy skies. But you know things are going to go wrong when the motley crew come across a mushroom circle and pick the fungi for an ill-advised meal.
Things turn nasty as O’Neill has his wicked way (whatever that involves) with a screaming Whitehead in a tent before the latter re-emerges, grinning inanely and roped liked a horse. From then on it get weirder and even nastier, as the full visceral brutality of 17th century England unfolds.
If there’s anyone in the British film industry making more interesting or challenging movies then Ben Wheatley, they must have passed me by. It’s hard to bracket him or his work in with anything else; his films stand alone, defying genres or categorisation.
Reference points for A Field In England might be Michael Reeve’s Witchfinder General, some of the weirder 1970s Clint Eastwood Westerns and the films of Nicholas Roeg and David Lynch; especially when towards the end of the film, a montage of psychedelic images and ambient music takes over the screen.
With familiar comedy character actors like Sheersmith (The League of Gentlemen) and Barratt, you half expect A Field In England to be some sort of black comedy, a Pythonesque historic spoof or some eccentric pastoral drama. But it’s more challenging than that. It’s beautifully shot and has a haunting soundtrack, but is also incredibly strange, violent and upsetting.
Released simultaneously at the cinema, on DVD, Blu-ray and on demand, A Field In England is certainly widely available but it’s likely to be a mainstream favourite. Nevertheless, it’s a film that demands to be seen and demands an opinion. An instant cult classic and deservedly so.