A Field in England (Ben Wheatley, 2013)
Four men walk across a field. One of them carries a pike; the other three are unarmed, which is somewhat odd considering that all four of them are, in various degrees, deserters from a battle taking place on the other side of a hedgerow from where they initially met. (What battle this is, presumably, I have been unable to figure out; the First English Civil War was over by 1648, but Cutler specifically mentions Oliver Cromwell at one point; I think Cromwell at the time was over in Ireland quelling the natives there in 1648.) One of them, Whitehead by name (Shaun of the Dead‘s Reece Shearsmith), is an educated man, apprentice to an alchemist, and he is on a mission. The others—Jacob (Starred Up‘s Peter Ferdinando), Friend (Malevolence‘s Richard Glover), and Cutler (Velvet Goldmine‘s Ryan Pope)—he’s the one with the pike—are all men who had been more directly involved in the combat. But here I’m getting ahead of myself; at this point, the four of them are simply walking across a field. That scene, a long, stationary take about fifteen minutes into the movie, reminded me strongly of a similar scene, coming at roughly a similar time, in Meek’s Cutoff, where the three wives are walking in a very composed, very studied diagonal line behind the covered wagon. That sort of deliberate composition pervades A Field in England, as well, more so than any of Wheatley’s other films to date. It is a film that revels in its artifice, and because of that, I think, it’s going to end up being polarizing; those familiar with Wheatley will find it either his best feature or his worst. I fall on the former side, just as I did with Meek’s Cutoff.
As I said, the four of them are no longer a part of the battle. Cutler, the pragmatist of the bunch, recognizes that the four of them are basically deserters, then proposes the four form a band of their own, and cement the bond over a good meal at an alehouse in the area he knows of. They agree and start off across the field. (It is here that the scene described in the opening paragraph takes place.) They cross a line of mushrooms and, with far to go still, stop and work on filling their empty bellies. That, it turns out, may not have been the best idea, both because the mushrooms themselves would seem to be hallucinogenic, and because they are part of what would seem to be the border of England’s largest fairy ring. However, during the meal, Whitehead asked the other three to help him on his mission: he is looking for a rogue alchemist, O’Neill (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley), who stole some valuable documents from Whitehead’s master. If only it were that easy.
It would be simple, though inaccurate, to categorize A Field in England as an exercise in style over substance. There is certainly style to it, and in spades; this is Wheatley’s most distinctive feature yet, stylistically, and that’s saying something for the guy who came up with the final fifteen minutes of Kill List. But Wheatley has a lot to say here (and not just about indiscriminate ingestion of hallucinogenic substances); his trademark sharp, finely-observed characters, and the friendships that develop between them, lend the movie a weight it would not otherwise have. Wheatley also comes up with some inventive ways to get around what were likely budget limitations; the obvious example here is the delivery of the dialogue in the climactic scene. (I’m not trying to be obtuse, I want to stay on the safe side of spoilery. When you see it, you’ll know it.) The main criticism I have seen levelled at the film, that it raises more questions about its plot than it answers, is accurate. I do not see this as a weakness. Your mileage may vary.
As a side note, the trailers for the film have made a pretty big deal of the war aspect. As a service to those who lack an interest in war films, I will note that the battle is a framing aspect that serves to fix the time of the story, at no point do we actually see any of the battle, though guns firing can be heard, and musket-smoke is visible behind the hedgerow, for the first five to ten minutes of the film. Unlike, say, Pan’s Labyrinth, which switched back and forth between the reality of the war and the fantasy world, Wheatley gives us a few minutes of character introduction, as it relates to the war, and then spends the rest of the movie in the titular field.
Ben Wheatley has gotten better with every film so far. This made me look forward all the more to his next project (as of this writing, he’s in the middle of both the Ideals feature and an adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel High Rise). But until one of those comes out, hunt this down and give it a look. *** ½