Whether his work is to the liking of the masses or not, there can be no denying that Ben Wheatley is one of the most interesting filmmakers in Britain today, from the starkly realist horror of Kill List to the bleakly misanthropic holiday japes ofSightseers, he has mixed genres in uncompromising films, and while his latest venture is unlikely to win him new admirers, it cannot be ignored, heralding as it does a bold experiment in release strategy, with simultaneous cinematic, television and home media releases.
A Field in England is many things; a promise to soldiers fighting far from home, a place of safety they have sworn to defend, a dream for which they long, but also a nightmare from which they cannot escape and where the promised glory of battle is hidden from them, the only treasure the bones of those who died before them.
It begins in blackness, noise and confusion, as a group of Civil War survivors seek refuge from an ongoing battle, crawling through thick hedges to the field beyond, but beyond the smoke and cannonball impacts, the strange silence of the field carries its own sinister threat.
Seeking an alehouse and a way out of the fighting, Whitehead is under orders to locate O’Neill who has absconded with papers belonging to their master, but O’Neill has other plans and uses the men to his own ends, telling them that within the field there is a treasure. Like Kill List before it, the conclusion is grimly inevitable from the moment the characters set out on the path that leads them to that place.
Filmed in stark black and white in a single location, the film is abstract, perhaps more than it needs to be, but carries throughout an air of unease, of a darkness that lurks beneath the blowing clouds and rippling grass, of the power that O’Neill holds over the men, even Whitehead who came to take him into custody. There are hints that he may be an alchemist, possibly even a dabbler in black magic, and the most fearsome scene is that when Whitehead succumbs to his will.
The performances of all cannot be faulted, raw and committed, with surprising inclusions of The League of Gentlemen’s Reece Sheersmith and The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt in addition to Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope and Michael Smiley as O’Neill, as terrifying here as in Kill List.
While it may not be possible to explain the events, there is always a sense of what is going on (usually not good) broken by brief moments of (usually gallows) humour and sudden tableaux posing of the characters, but there are moments beyond explanation. A thick rope is found which seems to tug back when the combined strength of the men pull on it, events within the border of the hedgerow seem isolated from that which occurs beyond, and nor are they bound by strict cause and effect.
Though a period piece, A Field in England feels oddly timeless even for those who have no indulged in local mushrooms, leaving the viewer that somewhere in a field in England, these men still search for hidden treasure.
A Field in England is now on limited release and also available on DVD and Blu-ray