Much has been made of the fact that A Field in England is the first film in the UK, or anywhere for that matter that has premiered across all formats simultaneously, namely cinema, On Demand, terrestrial TV and on DVD. Could this be a paradigm shift in the way we consume film? Will the major studios be prepared to take such a massive gamble with their revenues, arguably the only thing that matters these days? It will be a while before these questions are answered, but in truth, the real question is how it came to pass that the first film to be released in this way is a mind-bending, psychedelic trip into the mouth of madness and back again via the medium of almost forgotten Hammer Horror flicks and drug-addled lunacy. Anyone?
With no time wasted on such trivial matters as setting the scene, we are dropped without warning into the heat of an English Civil War battle. The date and location are unknown, all we are aware of is the terrified shrieks of protagonist Whitehead, as he flees from the carnage through a tangled hedgerow, the briars and thorns tearing at his flesh without mercy. Upon emerging on the other side he meets some fellow deserters, all of a lower class than him, but united in their intention to put some distance between themselves and the battle, with a nearby alehouse recommended as a good place to forget their troubles and drown their sorrows.
The cowardly Whitehead is racked with doubt however, for he has been charged with capturing the mystic Irishman O’Neill, who is on the run after stealing the possessions of Whitehead’s master, an alchemist of some power. As the group progresses through the field, they cross into a circle of mushrooms, which they then make the fatal mistake of consuming. It’s at that point that things go from bad to worse as O’Neill reveals himself to the new comrades and using a combination of his commanding presence, propensity for violence, and of course the mental turmoil brought on by the consumption of the mushrooms to impel the men to locate a treasure which he is convinced is buried in the field.
Some critics have compared A Field in England to Apocalypse Now and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but a closer bet would be Joseph Conrad’s original novella Heart of Darkness, upon which Apocalypse Now was based, albeit on a much smaller scale. The cloying malice and unease captured in those pages is also present in this field, as the sinister forces at work threaten to destroy the sanity of all present. The quest may be much shorter, but no less arduous for what lies on the other side is no happy ending.
The film’s miniscule budget of £300,000 just goes to show what can be achieved when passion is still allowed to drive the creators. The period dress is flawless, as is the dialogue, a delicious mix of Shakespearian flourishes and bitter profanity, exactly what we would expect from an ‘assistant to a gentlemen’ conversing with a common soldier. The grubby black-and-white cinematography also evokes yesteryear, with the feeling that we really are witnessing the past in all its dirt-smeared glory.
Director Ben Wheatley employs a series of visual tableau to evoke an otherworldly, psychedelic feel. We are subjected to flashbacks, the cast posing as if for a painting, direct-to-camera songs, liberal doses of slow-motion, and of course, a tortuous freak-out sequence that will test the limits of your endurance and calls to mind Alan Partridge’s line “Any epileptics in the room, get out now.” However, if it weren’t for the brilliant cast, the whole thing would fall flat. Reece Shearsmith is superb as the craven Whitehead, his simpering and desperate delivery of his lines only matched by his engrossing facial expressions. The scene when he emerges from a tent after being tortured by O’Neill will stay with you for days, as will his shrieks of torment. Michael Smiley, as the pitiless alchemist O’Neill is excellent as ever, with no trace of the human kindness he demonstrated in Kill List, only malice and contempt. Ultimately it’s the battle between these two characters that propels the film, not so much a battle of wits as a struggle for their very souls.
A Field in England shares the same gnarled roots of rural 1970s horror films such as Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw, and while the countryside has long been a staple of horror, this time it’s the vast expanse of the field rather than the claustrophobia of the woods that induces terror. Some alleviation is offered by the coal-black humour running through the film, such as the thoroughly unpleasant medical examination and bowel-voiding scenes, but ultimately these merely contribute to the hopelessness and turmoil the characters find themselves in. Big questions such as if everyone is in fact dead, killed in the battle, yet now inhabiting some kind of purgatory are implied, yet are not really relevant, for surely, going back the other way to where the battle rages is just as bad as staying put?
As with all Wheatley’s films, audiences will be split down the middle. Some will loathe its opaque nature, unlovable characters and lack of resolution. Others will be drawn into its web of occult mysticism, stunning visuals and mind-altering perceptions. Wheatley has opened a door to the past, one rarely glimpsed, and it’s one that all fans of challenging, intelligent cinema should go through.