Starring: Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Peter Ferdinando, Ryan Pope, Richard Glover and Julian Barratt.
Set during the English Civil War, the scholarly and cowardly Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) is travelling with a group of deserters in a hunt to find a devious alchemist named O’Neil (Michael Smiley). Soon, however, the group are captured by O’Neil himself, who uses his black magic to force the men to aid him in finding buried treasure in the field.
Where to begin with what will surely be one of the most divisive films of the year? Well let’s start with my own personal reaction to it shall we? I absolutely loved every second of it.
There, well now that’s alienated a good majority of you who I imagine are right now shaking your heads and tutting with distain (I also watch you sleep). For those of you who still care to read on, I’ll do my best to explain exactly why.
It is certainly not impossible to see just why many people have been left disappointed or completely bamboozled by Ben Wheatley’s forth effort. Without a doubt, for a man who already seems to specialise in ‘out there’ film making that has already earned him many fans, this is beyond all thereof its predecessors in terms of sheer (if you’ll forgive the term) ‘head fuckery’.
With only the most basic of narratives in places, ‘Field’ is designed to be an experience rather than the dare I say ‘conventional’ structure of Wheatley’s previous films. Using social media, the filmmakers strongly encouraged during off all light-sources and sitting as close to the television/screen/laptop as possible, a savvy way of making the impact of some of the film’s more surreal elements have an even greater effect. In this regard, ‘Field’ will be seen both positively and negatively to be an ‘endurance’, never relenting in his harsh and distorted vision. This is a ride you can either hold on to for dear life to and enjoy or let go and be alienated with complete indifference.
With any film such as this that knows of its power to alienate comes resentment of those left out of the loop of enjoyment. The twitter-verse in the wake of the film was a fascinating smorgasbord of opinion, with those left cold accusing those who loved it as being fans of snobby cinema, thinking they’re being really profound with their appreciation of something that was actually hollow and meaningless. However, I am certain that this was not Wheatley’s intention and unlike the arthouse nonsense of directors like Terrance Malick, I see Wheatley following the school of David Lynch.
There is a meaning to the film, but Wheatley is encouraging us as an audience to take whatever we want from it, to see what we want to see and hopefully never give us an answer. For me personally, I see it very much as representative of the uncertainty of the period, where a nation was doubting the existence of God for the first time and the fear and panic of being truly alone in the world in attempt to find courage. If you ever read a more up-itself sentence on UK Horror Scene, then I’d be amazed.
From a filmmaking perspective, quite how Wheatley and his crew were able to create such a gorgeous looking film in only 12 days remains, like many other aspects of the film, a complete mystery. Losing no impact for being in black and white, the otherwise uninteresting fields are made to look like the most breathtaking vistas in the world. Wheatley’s love for Britain is conveyed throughout all his films and it remains a shame that he seems to be one the few director capable of making the country look fantastic as it truly is. A new technique comes in the form of eerie freeze-frames that have a brilliantly strange portrait-like quality that look so fantastic that you’d want to hang them on your wall as a disturbing conversation starter.
Where Wheatley really excels though is capturing the grot and filth of the time, pulling no punches with several wince-inducing violent and disgusting images that lesser directors wouldn’t dare attempt. The film earns its ‘weird’ stripes for the use of brutally simple and yet retina-scrambling camera trickery such as mirror images moulding into one, sped-up segments and of course an enormous black planet threatening to block out the sun.
Despite these polarising elements, where ‘Field’ really surprises is in just how funny it is. Much the same as ‘Sightseers’, Amy Jump’s script is wholesomely British in every aspect, cleverly exacting humour while using the dialect of the time. Richard Glover’s nameless poor man with his bumbling good nature (who many will recognise as Carapod inventor Martin from ‘Sightseers’) steals most of the limelight in this respect; however Shearsmith, a master of dark cult comedy is the film’s true comic backbone.
With his proper way of speaking and his cowardly manner, Shearsmith is definitely the audience representative in the film, thrown into an insane world that is completely unlike anything we are used to and who you can’t help but root for, even if admittedly the film is not a character-driven piece.
Michael Smiley, who most will have taken to their hearts as the ever-dancing techno raver ‘Tyers’ in Spaced, seems to be a man on a mission to complete change people’s perception of him as an actor. This was first hinted at in his serious turn as the semi in control best friend Gal in Wheatley’s ‘Kill List’, but as O’Neil, Smiley is completely let loose and becomes a deceptively intimidating presence.
Striking an imposing figure not a million miles removed from Vincent Price’s ‘Witchfinder General’, seldom raising his voice Smiley is still able to fix audiences and the characters with a piercing stare that is often hard to meet directly. Wheatley wisely chooses to keep all his cards close to his chest, giving away almost no proper back story to O’Neil, shrouding him in an impenetrable mist of mystery that greatly augments the film’s intent to keep its audience shivering cold and alone in the dark.
The film’s quickest jump from sheer terror to funny silliness happens early on in one of the many scenes that really stay with you. From inside O’Neil’s tent, we hear blood-curdling screams from Shearsmith who then emerges bound by a rope with his trademark eerie grin, requiring no make-up, to a hauntingly atmospheric score. In the next breath, he is running around the field with the men, using his rope as a leash to the accompaniment of the music of ‘Pop goes the Weasel’.
Who knows what Wheatley was smoking when he came up with this idea, but this film certainly makes you feel you’d inhaled by proxy.
The sure source of great debate that, considering its small running time, I have barely scratched the surface of, ‘A Field In England’ is yet another blisteringly impactful hit from Ben Wheatley, a man who I hold in the highest regard as being the most important and unpredictable new filmmaker working today. “OPEN UP AND LET THE DEVIL IN!”
About Oliver Ryder
Ever since he saw ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ at the tender age of five, Oli was dragged into the wonderfully disturbing world of horror and has never looked back. He enjoys all things macabre, dark comedy, penguins and likes his coffee black just like his metal.