British director Ben Wheatley has a bold habit of experimentation, having previously married kitchen sink drama to comic crime thriller in 2009’s Down Terrace, social realism to occult horror in 2011’s Kill List, and British camping comedy to serial killing in Sightseers (2012). His new film, A Field in England (2013), is in much the same vein. An English Civil War era costume drama about a mystical hunt for buried treasure with psychedelic monochrome visuals, it lies somewhere between Michael Reeves’ The Witchfinder General, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man – a potent mix.
Co-written by Wheatley’s off-screen and collaborative partner Amy Jump and shot by regular cinematographer Laurie Rose, A Field in England bears the same sardonic dialogue, stomach-churning violence and earthy English countryside as his previous films. Our voyage begins with Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), a God-fearing alchemist who stumbles across deserters Cutler (Ryan Pope), Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and Friend (Richard Glover). Using brews of hallucinogenic mushrooms and deadly threats, Cutler coerces his three captives into helping Machiavellian Irishman named O’Neill (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley) to locate a sinister treasure buried deep beneath the accursed field.
There are absurdist elements to A Field in England that see characters in unexplained tugs of war recalling the likes of Waiting for Godot, singing folksy songs as if in a Terence Davies film, and frozen in strange snapshot tableaux invoking English political theatre and Stanley Kubrick’s epic Barry Lyndon (1975). However, some may find it wilfully obtuse and accuse its frequent allusions and experimental stylings of covering for a lack of narrative depth. Indeed, it seems kaleidoscopic visuals and effects have become the accepted way by which to represent trippy hallucinations on screen. Sadly, in actual fact they reveal much less than they pretend to.
Wheatley’s spirit of experimentation even extends to the way his latest film will be distributed this Friday (5 July), when it’ll be simultaneously available on cinema screens, DVD, VOD formats and free-to-air television. It’s a relatively safe gamble from Film4, who financed the film to the tune of just £300,000, and therefore shouldn’t need to worry too much about getting their money back. Yet, for all its drawbacks, A Field in England is undoubtedly best on the big screen – if just for its striking visuals and memorable oddities.