A search for treasure on the fringes of the English Civil War, Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England draws a blank.
Forever England by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Following Michael Winterbottom’s simultaneous release of The Road To Guantanamo in 2006, Ben Wheatley is securing his own world first with his latest film A Field In England, which premiered in Cannes but is now being released in cinemas, on TV, DVD and video-on-demand on the same day. The aim is to concertina the film’s lifespan into a brief, bright flash in the limelight, universally seen and on everyone’s lips. Whether A Field In England is dazzling enough to set film viewers (of all mediums) ablaze remains to be seen, but Laurie Rose’s monochrome cinematography certainly lends an art-house flare to Ben Wheatley’s roundheads-and-cavaliers spin on his previous film Sightseers, with his murderous rambles across the English countryside. Gone are the caravan-dwelling serial killers, but in their stead civil war, alchemy, masters and magick. And yet despite its period and arthouse veneers, A Field In England, with its quixotic mix of horror and comedy, is Wheatley through and through.
Amid a skirmish during the English Civil War, apprentice Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) stumbles through a thicket to escape battle and the clutches of a rambunctious cavalier (Julian Barratt). Speared through and then shot by Cutler (Ryan Pope), the officer dies in the hedgerow, allowing Whitehead to escape into the peaceful field with his rescuer. There they join forces with Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and the enigmatic friend (Richard Glover) who miraculously recovers after being shot. And following a suggestion from Cutler, they make their way to a nearby alehouse. It soon turns out however that Cutler has ulterior motives, leading Whitehead to a tethered rope, which, upon all three pulling, yields the invisible alchemist O’Neil (Michael Smiley). O’Neil, having stolen Whitehead’s master’s papers, is searching for hidden buried treasure. And after bewitching Whitehead with a spell, Cutler, Jacob and friend begin to dig, until they finally stage their own glorious rebellion.
For a film about one of the decisive moments in the UK’s history, A Field In England is surprisingly unpolitical. In fact, with its story of alchemists and stolen manuscripts, there’s something distinctly writerly about its narrative of metamorphosing base metals into gold and plagiarism. Penned by the director’s wife Amy Jump, it is nevertheless quintessentially British – pulling together a band of brothers who wouldn’t ordinarily meet, with dialects from all over the country – Manchester, London, Monmouthshire, Ireland and Essex. But despite some maggoty, old-fashioned-sounding dialogue, it’s a story set during a time of superstition that allows Wheatley full rein on riotous pandemonium – of broken magic mirrors, rope tricks and egested runes. And with his freeze-frame tableaux, closely lensed details and cinematic illusions (sped-up rope-pulling, a kaleidoscopic split screen and soundless sequences of rumbling winds), Wheatley pulls off his own nifty trick, creating a pre-Enlightenment cinema for a modern audience.
Despite the magic tricks afoot on this Civil War backstage, A Field In England is a catalogue of whimsy, either scatological (with some awkward scenes of defecation) or marred by a lack of detailing, such as the hallucinogenic mushrooms that ring the field and Whitehead’s drug-induced collapse. The film’s haphazard style makes it hard to follow, but mostly it’s simply a case of style over substance. Between its cast of comics acting against each other and the film’s chaotic fervour, A Field In England is a baffling mishmash of ticks and tricks. The story, buried deep in this empty field of fiction, is man’s escape from bondage, Whitehead progressing from simply asserting to himself “I am my own man” to becoming his own master, developing (via torture and a bewitched lobotomy) from a coward to a man of courage, revisiting the battlefield to return the guns of the fallen.
Towards the end, Wheatley brings the textured close-ups of the opening reel full circle, like the two halves of the broken mirror forged back together. But for all its smoke and mirrors, A Field In England is little more than an absurdist drama of five men alone in a field. The real prize here are the friendships forged across geographical and social divides. But like the figmentary alehouse, this Field In England may not be hiding buried treasure.
A Field In England is released on 5th July 2013 in the UK