You’ve got to give him credit; Ben Wheatley has come far in a short space of time. Rattling off four films in as many years, he has quickly managed to establish himself as a sort of beacon in British cinema. Together with his partner Amy Jump, Wheatley has come to offer something of an alternative to the clichés riddling our homegrown feature films. An antidote to brain-dead Cockney gangsters, saccharine old folk pretending to be hip and the turgid self-congratulatory dross of Richard fucking Curtis. Hitting their stride with 2011’s Kill List, the pair have been celebrated for mingling the grotesque with the gigglesome. It’s a very British sensibility, and mixing comedy and horror is easy to get wrong. Fortunately, these two seem to be on something of a winning streak.
If Kill List‘s laughs were muted by its shock twists, last year’s Sightseers played more openly as a black comedy. It’s a riot, and one I recommend you catch up on. Now, happily, Wheatley and Jump take an about-turn into the under-exposed realms of the English Civil War. Filmed in stark, textually rich black and white over the course of just 12 days, A Field In England invites you to take a trip unlike any other this year. Unless someone spikes your drink at a festival.
We focus, primarily, on a man named Whitehead, played by The League Of Gentlemen‘s Reece Shearsmith. Openly a coward and more a man of letters and knowledge than brawn and battles, Whitehead deserts his ‘man’ – a short-lived Julian Barratt – during a fretful skirmish, only to find himself in the company of a ragtag group of similar cast-offs with little more ambition than to make a break for a nearby tavern. However, things soon proceed to muddle as their apparent ‘leader’ Cutler (Ryan Pope) runs them into the path of mysterious Irishman O’Neil (the inimitable Michael Smiley). O’Neill, who has a history with Whitehead, has other ideas… chiefly to use Whitehead’s dowsing abilities to locate a great treasure hidden in the very field they stand in.
With a mixture of implied sorcery, devilry and some very suspicious mushrooms, O’Neill quickly gains the upper hand over this motley crew. All too quickly Whitehead and his cohorts find themselves in over their heads as things turn at first sinister, and then downright psychedelic… in a monochrome sort of way. Wheatley’s film warps time, space and perception and the viewer quickly loses footing. Evidently there’s a rabbit hole in this field and we’re set to take a tumble.
Wheatley has played expertly with maddening narratives before, ruthlessly chopping the necessary exposition out of Kill List in a commendable effort to get the audience to sit up and pay attention. So it goes again here, as A Field In England openly avoids easy answers. Pointed blackouts suggest the viewer is being denied information, whilst occasional tableaux scenes in which the actors appear suspended like tired mimes removed from a shopping mall add an economical uneasiness to proceedings.
Throw in an eclectic score, characters breaking the fourth wall and some unexpected singing, and A Field In England starts to appear wantonly odd. Wheatley has said that when devising the film he had the ‘midnight movie’ set in mind, and that’s somewhat apparent in the end result. Smiley’s get-up as O’Neill and the period might initially bring to mind Witchfinder General, but it’s not a comparison that holds water for long, or at least, it’s not alone. This is a movie which seems to invite and include a lot of cinematic referencing, echoing a great many works from all eras of cinema history. The student set are going to love it.
For many this will simply prove too much of a test of patience. I saw the film at the cinema and there were walkouts, the first I’ve seen since Killer Joe. However, if you’ve pushed people’s buttons that much, you’re probably doing something right. Ultimately, A Field In England can be praised for exactly the things which are as likely to invite criticism. One man’s pleasure is another man’s poison. You can view a lot of this movie as weird-for-weird’s-sake. It’s an assessment that sticks. It’s also one of the charms. If ‘cult’ cinema ever needed a blueprint, it might be found here. Time will tell on that score.
Crucially however, A Field In England is a success because of its actors as much as Wheatley’s technical excellence (and this is his best made film yet). Shearsmith and co make the dialogue flow naturally, no easy task when you consider how it has to sound both period accurate and easily digestible. Shearsmith’s overly theatrical tendencies actually fit in well. Tonally, this is not far off some of The League Of Gentlemen‘s later experiments. And then there’s the funny bone. Wheatley populates his films with comic actors and uses them wisely. You can charge it with pretentiousness all you want, it still takes time out for some basic toilet humour.
At its weirdest A Field In England looks like the kind of nutty imagery that’d backdrop the worst Chemical Brothers gig ever, and yes, I’ve avoided analysis of the greater ‘meaning’ of what happened here because, quite frankly, I’m not really sure what did happen here. But I want to give it another go. There are indelible images in this movie, not least of which is Whitehead’s exit from O’Neill’s tent midway through the picture. A long take which will live long in the memory of any that make it so far.
At this stage I’m ready to concede that I prefer Kill List (darker) and Sightseers (easier), but at the same time A Field In England is further proof that Wheatley is just what UK cinema needs right now. An injection of unpredictability. I hope Wheatley continues to ask us to sit up and participate. This strangle little monster of a picture seems to be getting a lot of attention, and that can only be a good thing.