The easiest way to describe Ben Wheatley’s wildly original new film, A Field in England, with its mixture of historical gravity, creepiness and demented humour, is a simple synopsis: It’s the English Civil War on magic mushrooms! Wheatley, in his late 30s, started out in advertising and television, has now made four films in as many years and has been hailed as one of the bright hopes for British cinema.
Along with his spouse, co-writer and co-editor Amy Jump, he has earned a reputation as a specialist in the low-budget macabre. A Field in England was filmed in 12 days for less than a half-million dollars. Shot in black and white, entirely in the outdoors, it features a half-dozen characters, traipsing around a field inflicting indignities on each other, while experiencing sorcery and hallucinations. Somewhere between absurdist theatre and costume drama, with particular echoes of English provocateur, Ken Russell, it’s the sort of film that fits no obvious category except for “destined for cult status.”
The English Civil War, which inspired Thomas Hobbes’s account of unregulated society as “a war of all against all,” serves an allegorical purpose, though it exists here primarily as an aural backdrop. While explosions and drums are heard off-camera, a frightened man tumbles through a hedge; he’s being chased by his master on horseback. The runaway is an assistant alchemist named Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), a self-described coward. Once through the hedge, he meets a corpse-robber named Cutler (Ryan Pope), and, a moment later, two deserters, a belligerent Cockney named Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and the dimwitted companion, Friend (Richard Glover).
On Cutler’s suggestion, the four men head across the field looking for a nearby ale house. Before they get there, they stop to light a fire and make a stew. One of them picks some nearby mushrooms and adds them to the pot. From thereon, A Field in England gets exceedingly trippy. “The colours are beautiful,” says Friend, looking at the grey sky.
Shortly after, the four men are involved in a fierce, bewildering game of tug-of-war with a post in the ground, and the camera spins around. Or, maybe it’s not a post: Suddenly a fifth man appears, an Irish sorcerer named O’Neil. Rapidly, O’Neil asserts dominance over the others, using every technique from physical violence to threatening to turn them into frogs. His goal is to use them to help find a buried treasure in the field.
“The world has turned upside down, Whitehead,” O’Neil says. “And so has its pockets.”
Between O’Neil’s dandyish sadism and Whitehead’s gibbering cowardice, there’s both horror and low-brow comedy. In a show of his terrifying power, O’Neil takes Whitehead into a tent for a brief interval. What happens there, we don’t know but after we hear a series of hair-raising screams, Whitehouse emerges, stumbling in slow motion, while the other men look in horror at his deranged smile.
Over all, A Field in England aims to confound. The filth-encrusted characters aren’t easy to keep apart, and the narrative is too fragmentary and freakish to grasp (the sun turns black, a character vomits rune stones). The giddy pleasures here arise from the aesthetic clashes: The digital video and kaleidoscopic special effects contrast with the historical setting; Laurie Rose’s cinematography mixes artfully composed pastures with grotesque closeups of diseased or mutilated bodily parts; and Amy Jump’s script swings skillfully between ye olde English and Monty Python crudeness. Yes, war is hell, just see what happens when you mix flintlocks with hallucinogens.