Film Review: A Field in England
When reviewing The Tall Man a few months back, I proclaimed that if any modern horror director’s films should come with their name in the title of their film, it should be French extremist Pascal Laugier. However, after witnessing A Field in England, Ben Wheatley’s trippy, black and white English civil war follow up to 2012’s darkly comic Sightseers, I truly believe that all this talented director’s films should now all start with ‘Ben Wheatley’s’, because he now officially has a perfect four out of four streak of great films.
Though the film has a few links to his previous films (the singular location and tiny cast of underrated 2009 gangster flick Down Terrace, the disturbing sound and atmosphere of 2011’s outstanding Kill List and the black comedy of Sightseers), A Field in England is almost unrecognisable as a Ben Wheatley film, and is one of the most unique visions you’ll see on screen this year. In another impressive feat, A Field in England has been released in the UK simultaneously in cinemas, on VOD, on Film4 and on DVD and Blu Ray, making it genuinely feel like event cinema.
The plot, which is scarce but still fairly mind boggling, follows three soldiers (including Peter Ferdinando, star of unseen British slasher Tony) and an alchemist (Reece Shearsmith, who is seen in films far too little) ‘cowardly’ hiding away from the civil war, a period rarely shown onscreen. After a deliriously chaotic opening scene involving explosions and terrific sound design, Cutler (Ryan Pope) makes the men pull on a long rope, pulling onscreen O’Neil (Michael Smiley, who should be a huge star), a villainous man of the devil who feeds his three captors hallucinogens and forces them to dig for a treasure that may or may not be there…
Using a tiny budget of just £300,000, Wheatley has produced one of the most beautiful and effective films of the year. Filmed in gorgeous monochrome black and white, and featuring some of the most peerlessly scary sounds in the score, A Field in England is as haunting as it is magical, and proves once again that if Wheatley ever makes a full on horror film, it will be the scariest film since Martyrs. His narrative style, also, is interesting in that he manages to reference other mediums and genres while keeping his film completely unlike anything else.
It has a certain Herzogian intensity in the very physical performances by the committed cast, and that Lynchian feeling of being in a waking nightmare. Living tableaux, cuts to black and physical theatre feel like nods to German expressionism and experimental cinema of the early 20th Century. There are even small references to classic features, like the pounding drums of British folk horror like The Wicker Man, and the religious despair of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
Wheatley has expressed many times in interviews that he doesn’t like long films, as shown by his latest film’s 86 minute run time, but unlike Sightseers, which seemed to be missing most of its third act, A Field in England feels complete, and any longer could have spoiled the atmosphere and tension built up, and just become a bit irritating. Wheatley has also stated that violence should always be depicted onscreen to show respect to the character, and though A Field in England doesn’t feature an old lady being pushed under a bus (Down Terrace), a man’s head being caved in with a hammer (Kill List) or a dog jumping on a knitting needle (Sightseers), it does feature some wince inducing shots in the climax of the film (not to spoil anything, but peace and harmony never lasts long in this film).
Though not outright a horror film (it’s incredibly hard to categorise as a film), it is home to some genuine creepiness, such as Shearsmith’s echoing screams during torture, and the sight of a drugged up man simply walking along attached to a rope. Most of all though, it simply builds up a wonderfully eerie atmosphere, identical to the one created in Kill List, rightly lauded as one of the scariest British films in years on release.
Though the cast is tiny, they are unanimously good. Most of the praise, however, must be reserved for Reece Shearsmith, who is outstanding as man trying to stay true to his religion and virtues while hiding from a war and being drugged and tortured by a man openly referred to by one character as ‘the Devil’. Playing it completely straight for the first half of the film, and so being easily the most sympathetic and humane of the characters, he is really allowed to go ‘full League of Gentlemen’ under the influence, and turns in a strange and often scary performance that shows full committal. It is no stretch to say he is deserving of a BIFA nomination.
Michael Smiley, whose introduction really kicks what has been a fairly shapeless and meandering film into life, gives a very different performance than we’re used to from him. Normally he’s so loveable and friendly, with an Irish twinkle in his eye, but here, he is completely despicable and menacing. The slightest scowl and twitch of his head is enough to make you shudder. Also of note are Peter Ferdinando and Richard Glover, who take what in the wrong hands could be cliché characters and turn them into sympathetic, fully dimensional characters.
The film is very far from perfect, especially in its weirdness, which often becomes infuriating. The rope sequence feels like a step out of reality too far, and the ending is likely to confuse and delight in equal measure. The dialogue, while painstakingly crafted by writer Amy Jump, is very tough to follow, and casual viewers may struggle in the opening to understand half of what is being said. Another disappointment is that unlike Sightseers and Kill List, the few comedy beats mixed in with the horror surrounding are actually quite awkward and disjointed, such as Ferdinando falling in nettles when trying to defecate, to the amusement of the others. In a film that is all about atmosphere and strangeness, these fairly mundane moments only serve to dampen the fear and make things less creepy than they are.
Though A Field in England is confusing, infuriating and beyond weird, its bold choices and ambiguity will make sure it is an experience that will benefit repeat viewings, and though many may be angry that the ending doesn’t make things clear, many others will simply be too washed away in the films beauty, atmosphere and dreamlike quality to really mind. Flawed as it is, A Field in England mixes poetic visuals, genuine chills and some brilliant acting to negate any lack-of-budget concerns, and though it remains to be seen if it will be a classic in the Wheatley canon, it is certainly one of the most interesting and ambitious British films in years.
By Harry Ford