A Field in England (2013)
Starring Michael Smiley and Reece Shearsmith
Directed by Ben Wheatley
On first viewing of "A Field in England" I wasn't quite sure exactly how I felt about it. Watching it for a second time, I was entranced.
I can certainly understand the content and volume of negative reviews for this film, because, frankly, this is a very "difficult" movie. The plot (for what there is of it) is minimal and abstract, and it required effort at times to keep up with the dialogue so as to understand which character was doing what. However, if one is open to it, this is a fascinating, absorbing, engaging, brilliant, enigmatic and unsettling gemstone of a movie. From the director of the even more disturbing "Kill List", we should expect no less; I have yet to catch Ben Wheatley's "Sightseers" but will be doing so forthwith, and am sure that Wheatley is fast establishing himself as the foremost exponent of creepy, challenging and memorable British cinema.
Set against the backdrop of the English Civil War in the mid 17th Century, the story sees Reece Shearsmith (whom you may know from "The League of Gentlemen") on fine form as befuddled emissary Whitehead, sent to track down and arrest Michael Smiley's utterly bonkers O'Neil, perceived perpetrator of crimes against Whitehead's alchemist master. Smiley's creation is equally idiosyncratic, and seems genuinely unpredictable without ever resorting to scenery chewing hamming. O'Neil declares that there is treasure buried in the field, and what ensues is best (cheaply) described as a battle of wills between O'Neil, the Royalist Whitehead, and the naive Roundhead soldiers also fleeing the battle, albeit set against the suitably hallucinogenic experience of an unfortunate trip on some dodgy mushroom stew consumed by the starving protagonists as they escape from a battlefield early on in the film, in search of the comfort of the nearest Ale House. All the "action" as it were, takes place unsurprisingly in A Field In England, but most of it takes place in the mind. Unease and violence abound.
I like a film which comes out of nowhere and engages you with the unexpected, although I fully understand that many prefer a movie where the boundaries are more clearly defined and the narrative flows smoothly from A to B to C. "A Field in England" is a trip; it's a surreal, dreamlike immersion which is to be experienced rather than necessarily to be enjoyed. Laurie Rose's widescreen black and white cinematography is beautiful, which is no mean feat given that it's all set in one location, so little opportunity for variety is afforded. Wheatley's direction is tight and measured; he injects just the right balance of surrealism and credibility, and elicits great performances from his cast, not just his main leading pair but also from the actors playing the three beleaguered Parliamentarian soldiers. Crucially, it's hard to predict exactly where it's all going, for which reason I loved it.
I get that this isn't for everyone, but I thought it was superb, haunting and captivating. As an interesting aside, it was released in the UK on the same day across multiple formats - cinema, DVD, blu-ray, download, and shown on TV on the Film 4 channel. I think this might be a viable model for film distribution in future. I for one am increasingly frustrated when, on my limited visits to an increasingly expensive cinema auditorium, I find that watching the film is disrupted by some kid's 8 visits to the bathroom and interminable attempts to get every last bit of ice out of that giant bucket of Coke. If I can see a brand new film on my HD LCD, I'll happily forgo the "communal experience". This is a film that demands ones attention, after all. So, not for all by any means, but I rated it.
If you're up for something unusual, this might be for you.
*NB this is an amended version of a review I originally published on IMDB. The sentiment remains the same!