It is the 17th century, and the English Civil War rages on with all the grime and viciousness peculiar to civil wars. The film opens with a cleric named Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) hiding under a bush and praying to God to spare him. When his pursuer is killed, Whitehead takes the opportunity to flee from the battle and takes up with two other deserters – the simple Friend (Richard Glover) and the more pragmatic Jacob (Peter Ferdinando). Whitehead’s mission was to reclaim some stolen property belonging to his master, but this is rapidly forgotten as the three go looking for an alehouse. They are joined by another runaway soldier, Cutler (Ryan Pope) who claims to know the location of an alehouse, and offers them a meal of mushroom stew. All but Whitehead partake, and it becomes rapidly clear that the mushrooms were not of the ordinary sort. Cutler, it transpires, is working for an Irish alchemist and necromancer named O’Neill (Michael Smiley) who is an ex-fellow-student of Whitehead’s and intends to use the stupefied men as slave labour, uncovering a treasure he believes is buried in the titular field.
Director Ben Wheatley’s particular genius seems to be in fusing disparate genres to create new things, creating a kitchen-sink gangster film (Down Terrace) an occult spy thriller (Kill List) and a serial killer relationship dramedy (Sightseers). A Field In England draws on yet wider influences than these, presenting a fusion of the acid-westerns of Alejandro Jodorowsky with the grit and bawdy humour of Chaucer, and the High Weirdness of the great 1960s British occult horror movies.
The film presents a view of Civil War-era England very much from the ground up. The characters are weary and grimy and discuss sex and food and defecation at length. None of them knows or especially cares which side of the war they were fighting on when they deserted. Perhaps most importantly, they don’t simply believe in God and in magic as practised by O’Neill and Whitehead’s master – they know in their bones that these things exist. Magic, particularly, is very important. O’Neill is freed from some sort of arcane prison by the captive men pulling a rope to turn a peg in the ground, and it is strongly implied that his “treasure” may not be purely physical in nature. This bleeds over into the presentation of the film itself, as the characters occasionally freeze into tableaux that seem to somehow comment on the action in the plot.
A Field In England is a film which resolutely refuses to address its own contradictions, or to spell anything out to the audience. The precise mechanisms of magic, and the plots of the greater magicians remain obscure, characters die and return (or don’t) based on some logic which is entirely opaque but still seems purposeful. It’s also intensely psychedelic, with a long and intense stroboscopic sequence toward the end, but is entirely in black and white.
And yet, at the same time it manages to present one of the more coherent and beautiful executions of the Hero’s Journey that I’ve seen, and to tie in to a deep but often-overlooked vein of English lower-class culture and tradition which is fascinating and weirdly charming.
This is not an easy watch, but if you’ve got the patience for it you’ll be rewarded. Also if you’re a nerd about English history, the history of English magic or psychedelic film generally, this’ll be right up you’re alley. Recommended.
The DVD also has extensive extras, if you’re interested in any of this stuff.
- “A Film In England: Making ‘A Field In England'”
- “The Practise Of Magic: Visual Effects”
- “What Not To Wear In 1648”
- “Only Shadows: Acting, In A Field, In England”
- “The World Of The Field”
- “The Look”
- “If Thou’lt Be Silent: Sound Recording”
- “The Edit”
- “Please Hear Me: Music”