A Field In England

‘Whatever you read into it, A Field In England is bound to leave you as mentally and emotionally flabbergasted as it did me’ – MacDara Conroy on Ben ‘Kill List’ Wheatley’s latest film

It’s a few days now since I’ve seen A Field In England, and I’m still bewildered by what I witnessed. Indeed, my first thought upon leaving that screening was ‘fuck me’. Director Ben Wheatley achieved a similar feat with his 2011 horror thriller Kill List, a disturbing drama by way of Leigh and Loach that pulls a controversial bait-and-switch on the audience, but his latest effort is a whole other kind of disturbing. Think ‘English pastoral El Topo‘ and you’re at least some way to understanding the psychedelic strangeness we’re dealing with here.

The setting is the English Civil War, a time of great upheaval as the country turned on itself and the fabric of society unravelled. The scene is the edge of a battlefield somewhere in Monmouthshire, where we meet Whitehead (The League of Gentlemen‘s Reece Shearsmith), a meek alchemist’s apprentice and soothsayer charged with the retrieval of certain occult documents stolen from his elderly patron. Lost in the fray after he’s separated from his abusive ‘man’ (The Mighty Boosh‘s Julian Barratt), Whitehead blunders into a fellowship of sorts with three deserters who abandon the battle in favour of that quintessentially English institution, a pint of ale down the local. Off they march across the field, a band of merry wanderers trading tales and barbs like the kids in Stand By Me, but this bubble of quaint camaraderie is soon burst as the party treads deeper into the unknown, and the ominous treasure-seeker O’Neill (Kill List‘s Michael Smiley) enters the picture.

To detail any more of the plot would be to give the game away; that, and it’s not simply a matter of plot from here on in. On distinctly minimal means, Wheatley paints a sprawling tapestry with Amy Jump’s smart screenplay and Laurie Rose’s haunting monochrome cinematography, aided by a strong cast of just six, and abetted by Jim Williams’ plaintive score and some dizzyingly effective editing and sound design, at times an assault on the senses that gives Gaspar Noé a run for his money. It’s also a film theorist’s dream as references point all over the shop, from English folk traditions to 17th century art, Tigon horrors like Witchfinder General and Blood On Satan’s Claw, the films of Antonioni and Jodorowsky, 1980s special effects, etcetera etcetera. More will be revealed on repeat viewing, I’m sure.

A Field In England has even been touted a prequel of sorts to Kill List, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Both are cut from similar cloth, being inscrutable mysteries that draw in the viewer with genre conventions only to gleefully mess with the head. Both can also be read as re-imaginings of canonical stories from Britain’s past: the latter with its allusions to Arthurian legend, and the former’s strong echoes of Shakespearian tragedy – Macbeth specifically, in its depiction of the consequences that ensue when mere mortals dare to upset the natural order. That’s a highfalutin way of saying ‘don’t eat the mushrooms’.

Whatever you read into it, A Field In England is bound to leave you as mentally and emotionally flabbergasted as it did me. See it for yourself on the telly if you’ve got Film4 (it’s on Friday 5 July at 10.45pm) but do try to experience it on the big screen, where its strange magic is all the more powerful.

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