A retro trippy multi-layered delight—if you like mushrooms
Warning: contains a few spoilers
As the credits rolled and a lovely period tune played with vocals, I felt a bit shell-shocked (not unlike one of the main characters). I’d just seen a piece of original cinema that was disjointed, confusing, frustrating, and often meandering. Rubbing my face there on the sofa, I actually found myself saying, but I liked it. Can’t say my girlfriend agreed. She drifted away after twenty minutes. But that is the kind of film this is. Some will find it intriguing, others pointless.
A Field in England is set during the English Civil War in the 1640s. The action takes place over not much more than a day and involves four deserters from battle, one of whom is working for an Irishman lurking in the said field, a man who we discover is dabbling in the occult arts. The three soldiers are led to the would-be sorcerer O’Neil, to be instantly enslaved as his workmen in a hunt for a treasure that is never specified.
The film is shot in black and white and this works well to convey a starkness of mood as well as to focus attention on textures and the central characters. It is extremely evocative of 1960s arthouse cinema and low-budget psychological drama. The director (Ben Wheatley) himself discusses this on the film’s website and lists some influences such as the 1964 BBC docudrama Culloden and The Trip from 1967. It actually reminded me in many ways of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God from 1972 which starred the slightly mad Klaus Kinski.
Madness is a central theme to the film (like in Aguirre)and the viewer is left to decide for themselves whether there is actual magic taking place or just a bad trip brought on by the ingestion of some hallucinogenic mushrooms. And the “trip” sequence taken by the captured lacemaker Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) is pure retro sixties cinema (think Easy Rider). Though the trailer refers to alchemy, the main villain of the piece is more necromancer than alchemist. Actor Michael Smiley portrays O’Neil as a callous and driven killer whose fixation on finding the treasure of the field through the use of enchantment on the innocent deserters, drives the plot to its chilling conclusion. But it’s a rather leisurely drive which sometimes loses its energy along the way.
Costuming is done well, capturing both the elegance and grubbiness of a country at war in the 17th century. Equally, the script (Amy Jump) does a solid job of handling the cadence and vocabulary of an earlier era without getting too bogged down in cod-historical speak. That’s not an easy balance to strike in books or film and some writers opt for using modern language to boost viewer or reader affiliation. This film takes a middle road but it does make the viewer work though. A lot of ideas are being thrown around in these 90 minutes and there are many period references that will be meaningless to those not familiar with the time. A mention of one character “wearing an angel” around his neck is not explained and most people would not know this refers to an English coin used as a “touch” amulet by the king’s hand to heal those afflicted by scrofula (what we call today tuberculosis). Given the linear progression, there is a lot of backstory taken for granted and precious little dialogue exposition to put anything into context for the viewer.. The soldier banter and humour is a high point though and the down-at-heels pikeman character, only referred to as “friend” (Richard Glover) has some of the best lines. Shortly after making a run for it through a hedgerow and away from the battlefield, one of the others remarks that they won’t even be missed to which the pikeman comments reflectively, “I often leave a wake of disinterest behind me.” There’s also a great death speech scene where you think the character is about to launch into a “tell her I love her” routine only to hear him say “tell her I hate her” about his soon-to-be-widow and admitting to adultery with her sister. The climax is bloody, if not unexpected, but does liven things up.
I think I’ll have to give A Field in England a second viewing to fully appreciate it. That I’ll watch it again must be an indicator that this is a good film. It’s challenging, original if somewhat flawed, but overall a delight to those who like me love the time period and for those who wish to discover it.