(Unlike my normal reviews, which get pretty spoiler heavy, I shall on this occassion restrain myself as this is a film I really want people to see! Being a tiny film, it’s all too easy for it to fly under people’s radar and I’ll not help matters by blabbing out the stories lovely little secrets. I suggest you go seek these joyful revelations for yourself.)
Britain really is a strange little country, full of old secrets, shadows and ghosts. The writer/director Ben Wheatley (Down Terrace/Kill List/Sightseers), in collaboration with co-writer Amy Jump, obviously agree with this sentiment. Their new film, A FIELD IN ENGLAND is set during the English Civil war, one of the most disturbing periods in our history. It’s a story about the terrible forces unleashed by greed and tyranny, resulting in madness and bloody discord. It’s one of the most stunning films I’ve seen in years, a period film speaking of ancient fears more relevant than ever in these post meltdown times. It’s exactly the sort of film this country needs, right here, right now.
Whilst blighted by some great evils, Britain has also been gifted with many revolutionary moments that changed the country for good. But like any revolutionary change, the cost can be great. When the change has been spurred on by the horror, cruelty and brutality of war, the cost often exceeds any benefit by a gargantuan magnitude. The English Civil war of the mid 1600’s was a period of incredible turmoil and change, seeing the end of absolute monarchy. An elected Parliament would now control the crown, the principle of the divine right of monarchs to rule over us ending with the execution of Charles I. But the conflict decimated the country, furthering the division with Ireland, leaving scars that remain to this day. Starvation and pestilence added to the casualties slain in battle, with estimates putting the death toll to be 3.7% of the English population, 6% of the Scottish and 41% of the Irish. To put those figures in context, the mass slaughter on the Eastern Front during WW2 accounted for 16% of the Russian population. With neighbour turning on neighbour, with accusations of witchcraft in every corner of a country ruined by chaos, starvation, disease, fear and superstition, it’s easy to see how people could believe the world was coming to an end and the devil walked the land. Add to this the convergence of science with mysticism, alchemy and the occult among many of the scholars of the day, you would get a sense that the country (as a character puts it in the film) was “on the edge of something”.
A Field In England concerns three deserters, fleeing from a battlefield. They are immediately befriended by Cutler, a man who offers food and the promise of an ale house not too far away. This is enough for two of the trio. However the third, Whitehead, is a more pious and learned man. His skills in divination are what dragged this unfortunate, cowardly soul into the heart of battle. A student of science, medicine, astrology and magic, he is charged with the duty of apprehending a man who has stolen his masters writings on the occult. The failure of his task means the promise of a noose if he returns to the battle, so he joins with this unexpected fellowship on their quest for a pub.
However, the men have been fooled. Tricked into consuming hallucinogenic mushrooms and threatened with violence, the disorientated and “confused” men are press ganged into the service of Cutler’s devilish master, O’Neil. The very man that Whitehead has been charged with finding.
O’Neil plans to use the men to dig up a treasure he believes lays buried in a field, hoping to make use of Whiteheads powers of divination to locate it. But as O’Neil’s greed unleashes forces he cannot comprehend, the men are drawn into further madness and violence.
The cast are absolutely fantastic, but the stand outs are Michael Smiley as the demonic O’Neil (yes! Tyres from SPACED!) and Reece Sheersmith as the cowardly Whitehead. Sheersmith really impresses here, displaying a fantastic range as his character has more and more layers stripped from him, sped on by torment and the strange powers unleashed upon the field. Just the gorgeously absurd banquet of twisted facial expressions Sheersmith employs portraying his character would be enough for me, but the film shows what this LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN and PSYCHOVILLE player is really capable off. You really get the sense of Whiteheads journey, damaged and battered and forever changed. Towards the end, there’s a strange, quiet giggle that Sheersmith introduces into Whiteheads voice. It’s one of the many incredible and disturbing elements he brings to the role. But my favourite moment concerns a tent and a length of rope, which I shall not spoil here. Blimey…
Ryan Pope, Peter Ferdinado and Richard Glover are great in their roles as Cutler (O’Neil’s servant), Jacob (an angry, independently minded man plagued by many afflictions, mostly due to enjoying “too much venereal sport”) and Friend (a wise-fool, all to happy to seek a “finer quality of suffering” at the hands of the monstrous O’Neil).
Indeed, the unfortunate situation Whitehead and his companions find themselves in can be interpreted as a microcosm of the larger conflict beyond the field, ruining the country but forever changing it. As the nation was scarred by the war, so are the characters. Facing the tyranny of O’Neil and the strange powers that exist in the field, all of the men become forever altered. This is an impressive trick from director Wheatley, avoiding the need to tell the larger, big budgeted story of the war by boiling the elements down to a small cast in one location, using the hallucinogenic images brought on by mushrooms and occult forces as a visual shorthand. Indeed, the film was shot in twelve days, on a budget of £300,000. Whilst it’s a shame a film of this quality couldn’t raise more funding, it’s a testament to the filmmakers for turning around a complete belter so quickly. Truly, a lesson to filmmakers everywhere (speaking of lessons, there’s a plethora of filmmaking knowledge to be learned on the films website, Wheatley and co generously going into incredible detail on how they made this film. Journey here if you would like to know more: http://www.afieldinengland.com/masterclass/).
Shot in beautifully textured black and white, the film is a phantasmagorical and poetic treat. Drawing on the Japanese film ONIBABA, the grittiness of CULLODEN and even a smattering of WITCHFINDER GENERAL, the film is a bizarre collision of styles and genre, resulting in one of the most bold and innovative British films I’ve seen in a long time. Smart enough to keep the story ambiguous, the film is a delightful puzzle box of symbols and meaning. From the start, there’s a real sense that the characters have crossed into another world as they flee the battle and crop up under the yoke of the tyrannical O’Neil. At key points in the story, Wheatley films the actors frozen still in a tableaux, the wind blowing through their air, the grass field billowing whilst the cast are motionless, grimaces locked on their faces. It’s a great choice, casting an ethereally effect on the film, the gestures and blocking evoking woodcarvings and paintings from the period.
Whilst darkly funny and humorously absurd in places, the characters really feel like they’re ghosts – phantoms haunted and twisted by the dark evil unleashed upon the land. Perhaps this is an answer to one of the films many mysteries. We are watching shadows from a conflict long past, but one that still effects us to this day. Danny Leigh has described the film as “a head spinning trip into the far corners of the English psyche”. It’s hard for me to find any fault with those words.
As mentioned, the photography by Laurie Rose is fantastic. The film makes great use of shallow focus camera work, the D.O.P occasionally making use of a home made lens constructed from a lens cap and the optics from a toy telescope. The results are stunning, crafting one fantastical image after another.
Sonically, there is a fine score from composer Jim Williams. Mixing traditional folk with a more contemporary, ambient, avant-garde soundtrack, the music alone is immersive. Combined with the dazzling images and an increasingly crazed Sheersmith, the film is bestowed with portal power. It sucks you in, transporting you. It would be remiss of me to not mention the excellent sound design of Martin Pavey, often using heightened and unexpected sound effects to bestow the landscape of this film with an eerie, otherworldly feel.
A Field Of England is the best film I’ve seen this year, taking some surprising turns I defy anyone to see coming. If you’re a fan of weird cinema, you really owe it to yourself to watch this immediately. Like 2001, it’s a film whose meaning isn’t immediately clear, but one I shall be watching, decoding and pondering over for many years to come. I’ve always been a fan of films that are smarter than me, which stay with me long after the credits have rolled. Such ambiguous and open ended fare is not for everyone. For me, it’s my favourite kind of storytelling. One that launches discussion, stirs up opinion, fuels the mind. You build a relationship with these films, a dialogue. You seek out discourse, interviews with the filmmakers, documentaries. Anything you can get your hands on to further the conversation. With a heady brew of politics, conflict, superstition, religion, alchemy, science and magic, A Field In England pretty much appeases all my fixations. I’ll be very surprised if another film eclipses Wheatley’s delightful sorcery in 2013.
One thing that is immediately clear is the films statement about the destructive, corrupting power of greed. When you get deep into it, all human conflict is fundamentally about avarice. One power dominating another for the purposes of exploitation. That no country in history has retained it’s place at the top of the food chain speaks of the self destructive nature of aggressive materialism. Post meltdown, A Field In England carries a very relevant message.
I simply cannot recommend this film enough. Luckily for us, this £300,000 mini-gem of a film is pretty much available domestically in every and any format you could care for.
Normally, a tiny film like this would be lost among the thunder and racket of its larger budgeted brethren. In a bold experiment, the film has been released in selected cinemas, shown on Film4, available to buy on DVD, Blu-Ray, iTunes, pay for view, streaming services all on the same day. The press has reported that this novel approach, combined with the focusing of the marketing campaign (not having to build up a fresh head of steam for the home video release six months later, for example) has resulted in an unexpectedly high amount of seats, discs and video streams sold and viewers at home watching. Whilst the novelty of the release no doubt accounted for some of the attention thrown towards the film, I really feel this is the future model for low budget films and certainly one I’ll be paying close attention to for my own films.
A brilliant piece of work from all involved, A Field In England really is quite special. I can give it no greater praise than saying this: On the week of its release, I watched it three times in the space of 36 hours. Which says everything you need to know about the film and a little bit about me…
If you haven’t already seen it and remain unconvinced, here’s the trailer. I can do no more.
“Open up and let the devil in!”…