Fantastic Fest 2013: Ben Wheatley's Hypnotic B&W 'A Field in England'
by Jeremy Kirk
September 21, 2013
Kill List and Sightseers director Ben Wheatley's A Field in England is drastically different from the British filmmaker's previous works, to the point that fans of his other films are having a difficult time wrapping their tastes—and minds—around this new one. A Field in England is shot in gorgeous black and white by his regular cinematographer collaborator Laurie Rose. That's a switch-up. Beyond that, though, Wheatley's delivers yet another head-trip of ideas, an extremely abstract work of art that requires the film to sink in and rattle around before the true genius at work is allowed to come to the forefront of your mind.
Plunging us headlong into the settings and surroundings of his film, Wheatley moves us into the path of a small group of soldiers who have fled the battlefields of the English Civil War. This band of deserters begin a trek across what has to be not only a field in England but the largest field in England, and what begins as a casual stroll towards a pub and a pint quickly devolves into a crusade of sorts. An alchemist's assistant (Reece Shearsmith) forces the quest that leads these men to much trippier states of mind and, ultimately, a fight for their survival against the harshness of human nature.
Ben Wheatley, directing as well as co-writing the screenplay with Kill List co-writer Amy Jump, isn't interested in hand-holding his audience through the story. As with his previous works, A Field in England moves quickly and lightly over the grassy terrain of engaging plot points and baffling developments. The protoscience and alchemy at work in the film's central progression is strange to the eyes of the modern audience, but Wheatley and Jump never slow things down for exposition or catching us up. We're left to half-understand much of what's going on, and for that reason, A Field in England's brilliance easily gets lost in the muddied waters of conceptual storytelling.
The odd changes in direction and slight tonal shifts throughout don't help matters, either. When the group stumbles across an Irish soldier (Michael Smiley, who, as always, is damn solid in his sadistic quietness here), the man who the alchemist was sent to retrieve, the film's head games turn up a notch. When the men begin consuming the strange mushrooms that seem to be lining the direction of their path, the head games and trippiness move to a whole different level entirely. Nothing is ever entirely clear, but that's okay. Wheatley's command in story as well as direction keeps your fear of an artist lost in his own work at bay.
You may not understand what's going on, but you fully comprehend that the man telling the story knows exactly what's going on. It's your job to try and keep up. The occasional living pictures in which Wheatley poses his characters here don't help matters of the abstract for moviegoers who want simple story design in their cinematic entertainment. However, the esoteric and, ultimately, hypnotic nature of A Field in England is what makes experiencing the film all the more rewarding. As with Kill List, it's a puzzle that requires two, three, maybe even four viewings before all of its pieces can finally be put into place.
That's the beauty of Wheatley's masterful works. You can say their each as different as night is from day, but at the end of that day, they are each powerfully enthralling films that never quite make you feel safe. A Field in England is every bit a Ben Wheatley film as anything he's done up to this point so far. Similarly, it's beautiful, harrowing, and as richly euphoric as anything the filmmaker has given us.
Jeremy's Fantastic Fest Rating: 9 out of 10
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