Cast: Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Peter Ferdinando, Ryan Pope, Richard Glover
Running time: 90mins
The lowdown: Ben Wheatley follows the psycho-holiday fun of Sightseers with a cloudier brew in this 17th century based mushroom-induced nightmare. The League of Gentleman’s Reece Shearsmith gives perhaps the year’s bravest performance as a scholar caught in a never-ending nightmare along with three deserters and Michael Smiley’s distinctly sulfurous bad guy. Surreal, blackly funny, infused with madness and barmy as it is experimental, it doesn’t have the focused brilliance of Kill List but is another bold step in Wheatley’s journey to becoming Britain’s most exciting director.
The full verdict: Those who found the third act of Kill List a frustrating head-scratcher will not enjoying strolling through A Field in England.
Ben Wheatley (working from wife Amy Jump’s ferociously strange script) has created a dark piece of cinema, with a constant sense of unease and scenes that burrow messily under the skin.
A story of sorts exists, but is buried deep beneath the singular oddness. In an unnamed year of the English Civil War, the scholar Whitehead (Shearsmith, extraordinary) flees the scene of a terrible battle along with three soldiers of unknown allegiance (Glover, Ferdinando, Pope).
Whitehead is searching for O’Neil (Smiley, belying his name), a dangerous Irish villain who has perpetrated some past misdeed. But, the Irishman believes gold lays buried somewhere in the field they have stumbled into and violently enlists the four men to find it.
Any synopsis struggles to convey the lunacy at work in Wheatley’s film. But, this is a vivid recreation of a time when sorcery was an everyday fact of life and disease addled the senses and fuelled superstition.
One character is introduced via being pulled from beneath the ground while another seems to be genuinely bewitched and coughs up large rune stones (although his heard-but-not-seen torture may account for his deranged mind and odd stomach contents).
Using stark monochrome photography, Wheatley infuses the English countryside with the same menace as in Kill List and Sightseers, generating dread and terror without a single recourse to a night scene.
Super slow motion is also wed to James Williams’ haunting score to unnerving effect, and a queasily fast edited mushroom trip transforms A Field in England into The Witchfinder General as imagined by Alejandro Jodorowsky.
This nightmarish sequence may contain answers to various riddles the film throws up, but it will take multiple viewings (and frame-by-frame analysis) to uncover them all.
And here is where A Field in England is likely to lose viewers. Its visceral impact is not matched by plot coherence and while it brims with meaning, what actually happens is up for debate.
Wheatley may be mining the class divide previously explored in Kill List. Michael Smiley’s O’Neil is a dead-ringer for King Charles I and sets two soldiers to back-breaking labour to line his pocket.
Or maybe it’s all Whitehead’s shell-shocked fantasy. Or a psychedelic hallucination. Or purgatory (certain characters are killed and are seemingly resurrected).
Repeat viewings are a must to delve deeper into the film’s meaning, and to decide if this is a two star exercise in pretention or a five star trip into the mouth of madness.