Directed by Ben Wheatley
Ben Wheatley continues to push the genre in new and exciting directions and has already garnered a lot of attention for his previous films Down Terrace, Kill List, and the dark comedy Sightseers. But it’s with his latest, A Field In England, that Wheatley introduces us to an entirely new kind of filmmaker, one with greater cinematic ambitions than previously shown in his other efforts to date. The last three of his films are all very different from each other and it almost seems like Wheatley was preparing those already familiar with his work for the drastic shift that A Field In England represents.
Overwhelmed with the chaos and horror of the English civil war, a timid Royalist named Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) flees the battlefield along with three Roundheads who all would much rather put aside their differences than die over them. Whitehead, as a bookish former assistant to an alchemist, has another mission in mind to locate and capture a man of magic and mystery named O’Neil (Michael Smiley). Once O’Neil is located, the men unwillingly fall under O’Neil’s control as he forces Whitehead to use his untapped powers of divination to search for a lost treasure buried somewhere out in a forgotten field.
As the story moves forward, it’s mostly the quips and interactions between the three Parliamentarian dolts that entertain while the more secretive and sinister dealings O’Neil has with Whitehead set a tone of foreboding that hint at the greater powers at work in other realms. Even the assured and well-travelled O’Neil doesn’t really understand the danger of what he’s tapping into by misusing ancient forms of spellcasting to turn Whitehead into a human magnet capable of drawing out something that was buried for a reason.
Shot in stark black and white, with short interludes featuring the actors posing motionless in the tableau vivant style, A Field In England is suggesting that it exists in a time where theatre was transitioning to film and color and other advances in the medium had yet to be invented. At war with itself, the country of England is also in a stage of infancy, before civilization and industry. Coupled with that, our characters are not evolved and are essentially rogues that have yet to find their place in the world. In that regard, A Field In England represents the transition from transforming loose magic into hard science – a transition that is literally field-tested in the mind-bending conclusion that elevates the film into entirely new territory and firmly places Ben Wheatley on his way to auteur status.
As things grow more dire for the camp and Whitehead’s visions begin to grow stronger, the once submissive well-doer battles back against O’Neil and, in the process, shows his true power. Of course, his fearless takeover wouldn’t be possible without the help of psilocybin mushrooms that he shoves into his mouth at an alarming rate. Once they begin to kick in, A Field In England officially becomes a throwback to the great psychedelic mindfucks of midnight movies like Alexandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo. In an epileptic, hypnotic sequence where Wheatley plays with the idea of persistence of vision – where the human eye creates an afterimage that fills in the gaps created by black spaces – the viewer is subjected to a barrage of images from the film, mostly focusing on O’Neil, that reflect and mirror off of each other and combine in order to reproduce the feeling of hallucination. Much like an actual profound drug experience, there’s a comforting but also frightening feeling that something is being tapped into beyond your control. In this bravura sequence, A Field In England conveys in image a profound statement about are past colliding with our future, much like the end sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey showed a glimpse of the universe in order to serve as a rebirth for the age of man.
A Field In England feels small at first, but this is Ben Wheatley’s first film to treat cinema as a transcendent experience that taps into something greater than us, serving as a reminder to film fans that the cinematic ideals of Jodorowsky and Stanley Kubrick have been adopted by, yes, even horror directors, and A Field in England is a great reminder of how something that still fits well within the horror genre is still capable of pushing the language of film even further.
4 1/2 out of 5