Somewhere in England, during the English Civil War, on the far side of a hedgerow, in a field, three soldiers and an alchemist’s assistant leave the battle in search of an alehouse, the existence of which appears from the outset rather improbable.
They do not find the alehouse. They wander across fields into other fields. It is always daylight, though at times a great black pulsing sphere blocks the sun from view and threatens to engulf the sky. They make soup out of wild mushrooms and henceforth spend the bulk of their adventure hallucinating. I’m not sure what it is about old English fields and shamanic visions, but they go hand in hand, don’t they?
Our adventurers come across a thick, engraved stump around which a rope is wound. They pull on the rope. They pull some more. Something seems to be pulling back. That something turns out to be an Irishman, O’Neill (Michael Smiley), the very man that Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), the alchemist’s assitant, has been tasked with finding and arresting. Where have they pulled him from? Perhaps they pulled him out of whatever trip he was on.
O’Neill takes charge. Using powers unseen and presumably occult, he turns Whitehead into a kind of dowsing wand in order to discover the treasure buried in the field. Once Whitehead locates the spot, the other men–Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), Friend (Richard Glover), and Cutler (Ryan Pope)–dig. They dig a very a deep hole. In which they find—
—I’ve revealed too much already. A Field In England is a very strange movie. Even the style of its strangeness is strange. When one thinks of psychedelic movies, one rarely thinks of black & white period pieces. A Field In England features many an odd and beautiful vision, culminating with a sequence of rapidly edited, mirrored images swallowing one another in a sustained burst of siezure-inducing insanity, which in its way captures a psychedelic mushroom trip far more accurately than crazy lights and colors ever did.
At other times, director Ben Wheatley freezes the action into theatrical tableaux, in which his actors stand still, mid-action, as if to give us a moment to reflect on what’s happening, or about to happen, or already happened, all three of which things are generally kind of up in the air at all times. Wheatley describes the kind of movie he wanted to make thus:
But also on a very basic level we wanted to make a midnight movie. Those kind of movies that haven’t been made for donkeys years, like Eraserhead, where you end up going, “This is wilfully strange.” It’s a trip movie, basically. In the same way that people flogged 2001 as one. It’s a sensory experience as much as it is a story. That was important.
Wheatley has made nothing but intriguing movies in Down Terrace, Kill List, and Sightseers, but this is his best yet. It’s hard to say what it resembles. It’s full of ripe, old-timey dialogue by screenwriter Amy Jump, who co-wrote Kill List and Sightseers, and wrote Wheatley’s currently shooting adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise. The characters are at first hard to tell apart, but grow in the telling into very distinct personalities. For a movie that feels experimental and abstract from the start, I was surpised how much I liked the characters by the end. Their humanity and depth is revealed with very few brushstrokes. It’s a very smart, very tightly written script.
Thematically, it’s hard to put one’s finger on what A Field In England is up to. The end is, in a sense, the beginning (a circularity akin to Inside Llewyn Davis and Upstream Color (something of a 2013 trope, it would seem)), when we met Whitehead mid-battle. War is endless? There’s something in that. An endless, hopeless struggle to achieve either riches, O’Neill’s goal; or peace, found at an alehouse, where women, food, and drink await, the goal of the three soldiers; or justice, Whitehead’s goal. None of these goals is achieved. In the end, all war leads to is more war. The most combatants can hope for is a bond with those they’re fighting beside.
And this bond, this treasure, three of the characters find. In a way. They also shoot each other a fair bit. Which like everything else in the movie turns out to have unpredictable results. Not everyone who dies stays as dead as you’d expect. Are these men trapped in a endlessly looping purgatory?
Thinking about it now, I’m impressed with how much A Field In England has left me to ponder. As it plays out, it feels as though very little one might describe as “concrete” happens. It’s a trippy romp in a field, with funny dialogue and striking images, and plenty entertaining for that. I’d be happy with nothing more. I’m happier still that A Field In England contains burbling away underneath its surface ideas about war and friendship and futility, and probably other things one viewing hasn’t yet revealed to me.
Also notable is the music, which grows weirder and more deranged as the movie progresses. It starts out sounding like something you might actually hear in 1650, and winds up someplace modern and disturbing.
I’m going to watch this one again. This is the kind of weirdness I love. Making a movie on a small budget doesn’t mean shooting your friends hanging out drinking beers, talking about nothing, and just, like, being real, man. Instead, you could take us back in time, toy with heady topics—both philosophic and psychedelic—shoot the whole thing with five people in an empty field, and trip us the hell out. As Wheatley puts it:
We wanted to see something crazy in the cinema, on the big screen, with a lot of people in a dark room, and let’s see what happens.