Ben Wheatley is back with A Field in England: having loved his twisted and very funny previous offering (Sightseers), this was a film the staff at Blasted were very much looking forward to.
And what a release it was – in a unique and brave move, the film was simultaneously in cinemas, on television, as well as being available on DVD and VoD. A pretty successful strategy, according the numbers recently released on the Screen Daily website.
A Field in England is, in the words of Wheatley, an attempt at making a 'wilfully strange […] midnight movie'. As I watching the film in Edinburgh's Cameo cinema last Friday, I was reminded of the Panic Movement films (Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo in particular): it is a psychedelic period drama that is not afraid of playing with form and perceptions.
On a very basic level, it is the story of four men who finds themselves abducted by an alchemist during the English Civil War. The film starts slowly, the script feels a little opaque, and not much is explained – it is easy to see why a viewer could quickly get frustrated. Indeed, A Field in England is not a work that will ever have mass appeal, but if one is willing to stick with it, it has some pretty wonderful rewards. It is shot in a glorious, at times almost ravishing, black and white that glorifies texture and lines (something that we maybe wouldn't expect from a psychedelic film); with its mix of traditional folk music and menacing synth/ambient sounds, it is also very interesting on an aural level. Like many of the 1960s/70s 'midnight movies' Wheatley mentions, this film is formally rather daring – we have a character singing traditional ballad Baloo My Boy straight to camera, and the narrative is disrupted by little tableaux where the characters are very still, and create an effect that is almost painterly. This is without mentioning the 10-minute 'bad trip' sequence near the end; although at times it verges on visual cliché, it is something powerful, and not necessarily all that easy to watch. Ultimately though, A Field in England doesn't take itself too seriously; as in Sightseers, moments of humour (and of, quite literally, toilet humour) abound. It should also be noted that he protagonists are all played by actors who are known to the majority of the public for comedy, with Reece Shearsmith and Michael Smiley pulling particularly striking performances. It has to be said that character development is not the film's greatest strength, although the multi-layered aspect of the script could definitely benefit from multiple viewings.
Ben Wheatley has put together something rather unique a possible quite divisive; for all its indulgence, A Field in England is a film that defies genre definition (as far as period dramas go, its closest relative is perhaps Brownlow/Mollo's monochrome docudrama Winstanley) and makes a virtue out of representing sheer madness and chaos.
A Field in England is available on DVD on VoD.