Cult Cinema: A Field in England

Andrew reviews the psychedelic period thriller, A Field in England.

Before taking on J.G. Ballard with the recently released High-Rise, my first encounter with director Ben Wheatley and his wife/screenwriter Amy Jump came in the form of a black-and-white quickie he did on the fly called A Field in England.  Set in the mid-17th century English Civil War and released on multiple platforms including theaters, home video and on-demand all at once, the film is a hallucinatory horror film involving four deserters in search of buried treasure only to find mind altering mushrooms, magic, necromancy, madness and murder.  Boiled down to six actors, the micro-budget production is an inspired little gem of archaic gothic iconography, kaleidoscopic psychedelia, hypnotic editing and visual flair spoke of the same breath of the great Ken Russell.  Utilizing nothing but the open terrain of the film's title, the costumed thriller is a tense, darkly comic and often creepy trip back into time with startling moments of violence and a quirky mixture of horror and hilarity.  Experimental in visual design yet direct in it's story of ordinary men held at gunpoint while tripping on mushrooms, A Field in England manages to evoke simultaneously beautiful and haunting monochromatic images without the aid of vast resources or a large scale production.  In other words, it does a lot with just six actors in period regalia running around in a field.

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What's immediately striking about Ben Wheatley's film is the dialogue and medieval hymns sung by the cast members, which is a mixture of long lost Old English dialect and juvenile fraternity brother jargon, making the film at once dated and immediate.  Some of the most effective moments in the film involve near silence with the ambient and industrial score by Jim Williams and among the most haunting images is a simple slow motion take of a man walking out of a tent with a crazed look in his eye and a seemingly endless rope tied around his waist and arms, lasting for over a minute.  

There are scenes where we aren't sure what is real or imagined, scenes of graphic violence that will unnerve even the most bloodthirsty gorehounds, scenes of bona fide 1960s inspired psychedelics and a tonal cat and mouse game where we aren't sure whether to laugh or cringe.  Despite having almost no production costs behind the picture, A Field in England is probably the prettiest looking open plain film since Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven thanks to the lovely cinematography by Laurie Rose.  Carrying the minimalist production are comic actor Reece Shearsmith, Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh, Michael Smiley as the scuzziest villain in Wheatley's oeuvre and Peter Ferdinando from Snow White & The Huntsman.  From the onset, A Field in England announces itself as an ensemble piece where no one is really the main character yet everyone's place in the story is vital.  

Fans of Sightseers and Kill List as well as newcomers to Wheatley through High-Rise will likely find A Field in England to be what it is: one of his smaller productions.  Although miniscule in size, this first encounter with Wheatley for myself was a hypnotic and compulsively watchable cinematic experience which genuinely transported me back to a time when the thin line between magic and madness was nearly indistinguishable.  The performances across the board are solid, the horrors are genuinely shocking and the images are as fantastic as they are madcap.  Proof positive that you don't need large crews and millions of dollars to make a good movie, A Field in England is a clandestine little number which arrived under the radar in the U.S. but drew strong plaudits from the likes of Martin Scorsese who called the film 'a stunning cinematic experience'.  As it stands today in the pantheon of quote on quote "trippy" movies, while nowhere near the head over heels sensory overload that was Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void, through the use of rapid fire editing and surreal images of black smoke filling the sky, it comes pretty close in its own right.  No it doesn't reach the heights of director Ben Wheatley's latest venture in surrealism, but we often don't see a period piece married to the horror genre with more than a few hallucinogens everyday let alone one which comes together quite as well as A Field in England does. 


-  Andrew Kotwicki