“I think I have worked out what God is punishing us for. Everything.”
I was reminded earlier this month that I haven’t seen any of Ben Wheatley’s films except for Kill List. It wasn’t this month’s release of Rebecca on Netflix, oddly enough, but the announcement that he’d be helming the sequel to The Meg. While Wheatley has made horror, science-fiction and action-comedy films I somehow never saw him helming a giant shark sequel. Even though it would probably end up being all of those genres at once.
After taking a look at his filmography I decided I’d probably watch Rebecca this month, even though it’s only horror tangential, more of a suspense story than anything else. Then I realized I still had A Field in England in my Amazon queue, though I don’t even remember adding it!
I had somehow remained ignorant of almost anything about the film until I watched it last night, to the point that I was surprised to find it was shot in black and white. I was aware that it’s set during the English Civil War, so I was half expecting something like The Witchfinder General. A Field in England is… not like that.
I watched A Field in England on Amazon Prime. Justwatch.com doesn’t show it as available there, FYI. It does show it as available for subs on Roku, Tubi and Popcornflix, however. It can be rented or purchased at a number of online vendors.
A 2014 Blu-ray release from Drafthouse films is available, and apparently worth picking up. I’d love to hear the commentary track.
Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), an apprentice Alchemist, falls in with a group of deserters during the English Civil War. He’s been sent to find someone or something and is only saved from his failure to do so by the actions of a soldier, Cutler (Ryan Pope). They’re joined by the rough-hewn veteran Jacob (Peter Ferdinand) and the dim but genial Friend (Richard Glover). None of them have any interest in returning through the hedge-row to the battle that still rages on the other side. Cutler leads them into a field with promises of a nearby ale-house, but his intentions are far from benign.
A Field in England is full of all kinds of moments that could be important or could be meaningless, not unlike the tomes of alchemy, astrology and science that Whitehead is allowed to peruse in his master’s study. When we first see Friend he’s taken for dead, and this seems to be something of a common circumstance for him. We’ll see him dead at least twice more, though it never seems to take. Cutler is friendly with the men at first, but insists on cooking them a stew made from the mushrooms that infest the field. Jacob has trouble taking a shit. Which of these elements is meaningful? All of them? None? The film makes you want to ask, but only gives the answers it wants to.
Cutler is working for a man named O’Neill (Michael Smiley), a sort of “black alchemist” and the man who Whitehead has been tasked to find. It seems they both worked for the same master, but O’Neill stole a number of important documents and fled to make his fortune with them. Things haven’t gone his way, however, and he owes a great many people a great deal of money. Whitehead is going to help him out of this predicament – whether he wants to or not.
O’Neill, summoned up out of the field by the men pulling on a long rope, sees all of the men – Cutler included – as a means to an end. There’s a treasure to be had in the field. Whitehead, with his keener magical senses, will find it for him. Jacob and Friend, rendered malleable by the mushroom stew, will dig it up while Cutler keeps them working. Whitehead, though a coward and sheltered, has not partaken of the stew and refuses – until O’Neill breaks him with a lengthy scene of torture (heard, not witnessed).
A Field in England is just odd. It’s full of alchemical nonsense like the way the rope “pulled by four men” is required to haul O’Neill out of the mushroom circle (apparently an English folk tale). The black scrying mirror, the runestones thrown up Whitehead and the black hole sun he witnesses above the field. It’s also occasionally hilarious – with transition scenes that are the actors posing as if parts of medieval paintings or woodcuts, a running scene worthy of Benny Hill and a last request that features a man wanting his wife to know that he loves her sister… “and had her many times.”
“If I had known that, I would have had more respect for you,” says Jacob.
The real treasure to be found in the field is, apparently, the friendship that forms between Whitehead, Jacob and Friend. While Cutler and O’Neill work for an imagined material reward (one that’s literally marked by corpses) the other three come to care for, protect and mourn each other. One of the most poignant lines in the whole film, to me at least, is a muttered “thank you,” from the bitter (and pox riddled) Jacob, when Whitehouse makes a poultice for his… uh, John Thomas.
Whitehead consumes an ungodly (probably a reference) amount of mushrooms in the process of discovering his own power and will in defiance of O’Neill. With aid of his friends he’ll fight to survive both the visions and O’Neill, hoping that some of them will live to leave the field and return to the world beyond the hedge-row.
A Field in England has rough spots – it sometimes unfolds like a smoothly made feature film and sometimes lurches forward with odd bits that scream “independent and experimental!” Some of that works – I dearly love the faux-tableaux – but others, like the endless rope pulling or Friend music video stop me dead and it would take a few more minutes for me to re-engage with the narrative. I also think shooting the film in black and white serves no good purpose, and actually renders some moments, like the kaleidoscopic visions and black hole in the sky, less effective. I don’t mind black and white films, but I just don’t see a reason for it here.
The Bottom Line
A Field in England is a surreal and sometimes hilarious historical drama, with elements of horror (mostly suggested, though there are a couple of gory moments). Excellent performances, particularly by Shearsmith as Whitehead, anchor the more unreal elements of an alchemical mystery and make you interested enough in the characters and their tale to wade through all the symbols, references, and odd distractions. (I guess Jacob just doesn’t eat enough fiber.) Well worth a look.