It is 1648 and England is in the midst of a civil war between the Roundheads and Royalists. Three rebels have had enough of war and desert the field during one of many battles. On their way to find a tavern to drink to their desertion their number increases to five, one of whom embodies evil and is searching for a treasure. His quest will lead him and the others to cross “A Field in England.”
Director-writer Ben Wheatley is certainly a filmmaker who follows his own creative path: “Kill List,” about a troubled hit man who gets in way over his head, and “Sightseers,” the tale of a couple on an idyllic vacation that turns to mayhem, could not be more different and unusual. But, with “A Field in England” he has walked off the map.
The film begins with Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) being hunted by a nobleman, an alchemist of the dark arts, on horseback. As the noble closes in on his prey he is run through by a lancer. The fugitive is joined by three rebel deserters who make the plan to escape death and find a tavern to tie one on. Things begin to get weird when they encounter O’Neil (Michael Smiley), a commanding royalist who coerces the soldiers to dig in the field for his treasure – whatever that is. While foraging for food, one of the men stumbles upon some mushroom and he adds them to their meager stew. The mushrooms are not your garden variety and all the men begin to hallucinate, intensely.
“A Field in England” is not a typical narrative. Instead, it is a series of incidents that take a surreal turn when O’Neil forces Whitehead into his tent. The air is pierced by anguished screams emanating from the tent. Then, Whitehead appears, tethered by a long rope, and slowly walks toward the soldiers with an almost demonic look on his face. We do not know what happened in the confines of the tent but it is obvious that it is not good.
The story, by Wheatley and Amy Jump, consists mainly of the men talking and walking across the title field. This rambling takes a psychedelic turn when magic mushrooms are added to the mix and the men lose their minds. (There is a caveat at the beginning of the film warning that it contains rapid strobing that may affect the viewer’s brain. When the fast-edited images of the men’s mushroom-induced hallucinations begin, you can see that the warning is not just a gag.)
“A Field in England” will likely appeal to Ben Wheatley fans with its combination of drama, thriller and comedy. But, it is a hard slog for those uninitiated to the director’s unique works. It is sometimes fascinating with its extreme visuals and machine gun editing but too many questions are left unanswered, like: Is O’Neil the Devil incarnate? Maybe. I give it a B-.
When Friend (Richard Glover, "Sightseers"), Jacob (Peter Ferdinando, "Snow White and the Huntsman") and Cutler (Ryan Pope, "Looking for Eric") desert a civil war battle through a shrubbery, they encounter Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith, "Shaun of the Dead"), a gentleman, and set off for the local Alehouse. But they are waylaid by the brutal O'Neil (Michael Smiley, "Kill List"), a man of dark powers who leads them on a mysterious search through "A Field in England."
Cowriter (with Amy Jump)/director Ben Wheatley's ("Kill List," "Sightseers") latest is a nutty little black and white exercise that, with its quest to find an English Alehouse upended by a Black Arts practitioner, would make a great double bill with "The World's End." This one is both more ambitious in its ideas and much more low budget in its production (a field, a tent, a rope), but is also admittedly puzzling. The fact that the starving band encounter and gorge themselves upon mushrooms is clearly a factor, but even when one isn't sure what the filmmakers are getting at, the film is still funny, absurdist and disturbing. Those who react badly to the stroboscopic effect are warned at the onset (as really, who would expect this in a film set in the 17th century?).
Cutler, Jacob and Friend (whose headgear reminds one of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail's Patsy) are almost comic relief as compared to the test of wills between O'Neil and Whitehead, although that test of wills is unbalanced from the start. Whitehead seems all too ready to capitulate to O'Neil. Then again, just because we see a character die doesn't mean he won't reappear quickly, just one of the head scratching aspects of Wheatley's film. There's morbidity a'plenty (a genital check), and a rather eerie scene where Whitehead is taken into O'Neil's tent - we hear his ungodly screams - and then they reemerge. Music ranges from the chamber variety to the kitsch of the '60's when the fourth wall isn't being broken for a song. We can hear the bubonic plague associated 'Ring Around the Rosie' and the Scottish ballad 'Baloo My Boy.'
"A Field in England" is an unconventional film experience, one which will turn off some and have others clamoring for repeat viewings. It may be Wheatley's least straightforward film, but it's entertaining and provocative and it's stayed with me.
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