Even though Ben Wheatley’s first three films have an unsettling otherness about them, I still wasn’t prepared for the level of darkness contained within his fourth feature, the trippy and perplexing period drama A Field In England. Set against the backdrop of the English Civil War and shot entirely in monochrome, it’s a story encompassing deserters, magick, necromancy, psilocybin mushrooms and death (natch) that I didn’t quite understand – well, certainly the hallucinatory third act – though I remained completely enthralled by it until the very end. (With that in mind, if you prefer clear narratives over ambiguity and prefer everything explained rather than being left to interpret for yourself, then you’ll probably find this a frustrating experience.)
It begins with a man scrambling through hedgerow to escape a battle which we hear but never see. He is Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), an alchemist’s assistant who has been given orders to find a rogue colleague, but who has exited the field of conflict due to his own innate cowardice. The hedgerow seemingly acts as a barrier between worlds: on the one side is this very real battle, on the other is the large field in which all of the action takes place, where a certain pastoral tranquility masks an otherworldly, lurking evil; it’s a commonly-seen landscape, with its tree-lined borders, gentle slopes and swaying grass, but here Wheatley turns it into a temporary, occult-ridden netherworld. Whitehead meets two other deserters on this side of the hedgerow, namely Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and Friend (Richard Glover), before a fourth man a man named Cutler (Ryan Pope) seemingly appears out of nowhere. The group decide to press on away from the battle with the intention of reaching an alehouse, but it’s a sanctuary that remains tantalisingly out of reach for the duration of the film (later revealed as a fictional construct by the story’s most manipulative character). The lives of these four men are turned upside down when they discover O’Neill (Michael Smiley) – the man whom Whitehead is supposed to be looking for – tied to a stake in the middle of the field. Once free of his binds O’Neill quickly asserts control, partly through Whitehead’s own snivelling deference and partly due to the effects on the group of magic mushrooms, which some of the men eat.
It’s hard to describe what follows, and I’m not entirely sure I understood all of it, but it’s a strange, psychedelic journey that relies less on Wheatley’s love of stomach-churning violence and more on the ability he shares with regular collaborator Amy Jump – here the sole writer of the screenplay as well as co-editor – to unsettle the viewer. An understandable plot point is initially presented when all the characters are together, namely that O’Neill wants the men to dig for some supposed buried treasure, though it later transpires that this was just a trick; he is in fact after something else entirely, and this takes the film off into darker territory. From this point on A Field In England shares strong links with the same low budget British folk horror of the 1960s and 1970s that permeated the latter stages of Kill List (Witchfinder General and The Blood On Satan’s Claw are apparently influences). There are one or two standout scenes: anyone who has seen Whitehead walking out of O’Neill’s tent after some torture or rape has taken place inside will know what I’m talking about, while a prolonged montage featuring stroboscopic lighting, giant black holes in the sky and mirror effects to suggest certain characters are occupying the mindset of others or connecting in some other awful way is quite a head-trip. Also quietly effective are the tableaux vivants that are occasionally thrown in; the exagerrated poses held by the characters are perhaps used to reflect the art of the era, but they also add to the ominous disquiet. It’s a shame that this oddness abruptly gives way to a rather more prosaic shootout Wheatley uses to bring things to a close, though there is still a bizarre sting in the tale that serves as a reminder that you need to spend plenty of time figuring out what the hell just happened.
Directed by: Ben Wheatley.
Written by: Amy Jump.
Starring: Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope, Julian Barratt.
Cinematography: Laurie Rose.
Editing: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley.
Music: Jim Williams.
Running Time: 86 minutes.