A Field In England begins with that most British of quests: the hunt for a decent pub. Featuring an ensemble cast including Reece Shearsmith, Julian Barratt and Michael Smiley, director Ben Wheatley’s fourth feature film (discounting his segment in the horror anthology The ABCs Of Death) sees him turn from the contemporary settings of Down Terrace, Kill List and Sightseers, and back to the grubby meadows of the English Civil War.
Amid the chaos of the 17th century war, four deserters stumble from the battlefields and head off in search of a pint of ale. Among them is Whitehead (Shearsmith), a meek, verbose “assistant to a gentleman of Norwich” on the trail of a thief called O’Neil, who’s stolen a collection of his master’s occult documents.
When that thief (played by Michael Smiley) turns up one day, he quickly dominates the group, and their objective switches from finding a pub to searching for buried treasure in a field. As O’Neil uses Whitehead’s skills of divination to find what he’s looking for, and the soldiers’ brawn to dig down into the soil, the film takes on a wild, hallucinatory air. Whitehead begins to see visions of a black star growing in the sky, and as tempers flare, a more intimate kind of civil war threatens to play out.
Shot in black and white with a subtle sepia hue, A Field In England is arguably Wheatley’s most beautiful-looking film yet. Laurie Rose’s cinematography has the minimal framing and the muddy feel of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, mixed with the British folk horror of Blood On Satan’s Claw or Witchfinder General.
In Wheatley’s quiet, empty fields, intimate dramas unfold. Whitehead forms a friendship with a simple, sweet “cooper from Wickford in Essex”, before Michael Smiley’s dandyish, terrifying antagonist turns up to ruin the group’s uneasy relationship.
“It does not surprise me that the devil is an Irishman,” one character says of O’Neil, “though I thought perhaps he might be a bit taller.”
Screenwriter Amy Jump’s script is perfectly balanced: witty, coarse, and full of character. Perhaps spurred on by her expertly-crafted words, the cast delivers every line with relish. Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover and Ryan Pope are superbly cast. Shearsmith is brilliant as the bookish man with more affinity for lace making than firing guns, while Smiley is perfectly menacing as O’Neil; “Do not directly address me again, or I’ll turn you into a frog,” is perhaps his finest utterance.
Then again, there are all sorts of lines that lodge in the brain. “My balls have ceased screaming,” is one. “What this party lacks is the civilising influence of women” is another. It’s all such savage poetry.
Somewhere in the second half, the effects of the mushrooms – blithely stirred into the camp’s stew one dinner time – begin to take hold, and it’s here the balls really start screaming. Eerie scenes that appear frozen in time, like a loamy Barry Lyndon, are matched with hallucinations, percussive music and a ghostly backwash of echoes and howls.
Like Apocalypse Now, the very rules of filmmaking and storytelling appear to dissolve in a chemical haze, though it’s to Wheatley’s credit that A Field In England is never less than compelling and brisk, no matter how surreal its events become.
Wheatley’s earlier work has been rightly celebrated, but for this writer, A Field In England may be his most complete, individual film yet. It delves back into centuries of history, recalls some of the great movies of past decades, yet somehow feels like a fresh and unique entity in its own right. Some viewers may prefer the slightly more conventional first half to the more freeform second, though I suspect that most will enjoy every unpredictable, gonzo minute of it.
A cauldron of great acting, writing, direction and music, A Field In England captures so much of Britain’s foibles and eccentricities, past and present: class, countryside, magic, drunkenness, brutality, cowardice, eloquence and vulgarity, humour and pathos, filth and beauty.
It’s a work of inspired madness, and simply put, deserves to be seen – and then discussed at length in a British pub afterwards, perhaps over a pint of foaming ale.
A Field In England launches simultaneously in cinemas, on Film4, DVD, Blu-ray and VoD on the 5th July.
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