Ben Wheatley’s latest film opens with the most inconspicuous of narrative quests – the search for a pub. However as things progress, and as magic mushrooms are consumed, everything begins to descend into a kaleidoscopic maelstrom of surreal chaos in this inimitably compelling British oddity.
Set in the heart of the English civil war, A Field In England follows a disparate group of deserters who’re abandoning the war either for cowardice, fortune or beer’s sake (or perhaps a bit of all three). Amongst this decidedly un-merry band is Whitehead (played by Reece Shearsmith), a submissive and grandiloquent man who’s seeking out the thief O’Neil – a man who’s stolen the arcane documents of his alchemist master. Composing the rest of the group we have a dim-witted copper from Essex, a mysterious jewel thief and a drunken thug with an itchy willy. As you can probably tell by now this isn’t your staple English Civil War drama, and it’s all the better for it.
When the group start to pull on a mysterious rope in a field, on the end of which they find Whitehead’s thief, things go from bad to worse as the iniquitous and serpentine O’Neill (Michael Smiley) takes charge of the group and has them hunting around for treasure. Whitehead’s mental state slowly collapses in on itself as he starts practising divination to find the treasure. When he sees a huge black planet of smoke encroaching on the field, you know that some weird stuff is about to go down. And go down it does.
A Field In England’s disregard for narrative comprehension is admirable, particularly since it’ll undoubtedly alienate many. At points the film drives forward in a kinetically regimented fashion, as echoed by the intermittent marching drums of war in the soundtrack. More frequently however it meanders, lingers and distorts in on itself – seemingly contorting the very fabric of the medium which houses it through psychedelic split screen and cross-fading editing effects. The film is never more powerful than at these moments of aesthetic madness; Shearsmith’s Whitehead emerging from a tent with a maniacal gaze and deranged walk, bound in thick rope, is a particularly arresting image.
Wheatley creates a palpable sense of dread and chaos in the psychedelic climax of the film’s penultimate act. Its eerie soundscapes and iconic imagery recall 2001: A Space Odyssey’s “Jupiter & Beyond the Infinite”, El Topo and the more contemporary Valhalla Rising. While A Field In England isn’t up to muster with Kubrick’s masterpiece, to mention the two in the same sentence is enough of an indication of its strengths.
To focus purely on Wheatley’s influence on the film would be remiss. The performances are superb; swinging wildly between charmingly comic and disconcertingly demented (a key trope of Wheatley’s back catalogue). Shearsmith and Smiley shine especially strongly. The cinematography is genuinely haunting, capturing the mystical, seemingly paganistic tone of the elements perfectly in a sepia Black & White hue; feeling a tad like it was shot by Terrence Malick’s evil twin.
While not quite a masterpiece, there are nonetheless masterful strokes at work in this triumphantly unique and dizzyingly captivating film. Coming out as a cross platform release on the 5th of July, A Field In England can be enjoyed at home or at the cinema. For this writer however, this is an intensely cinematic experience – a film whose psychedelically disturbing imagery and soundscapes would be lost somewhat away from the big screen. So get yourself down to the cinema and buckle your seat belt for one of the most distinctive and powerful British films of recent years.
A Field In England is out across platforms now!