A Field In England (2013)
Director: Ben Wheatley
Writer: Amy Jump
Starring: Reece Shearsmith & Michael Smiley
“I am my own master.”
Much of the discussion surrounding Ben Wheatley’s latest creation has largely focused on the innovative release on a variety of platforms in the same day, and for good reason. To my knowledge it is the first to employ such a strategy and could serve to gather a greater audience than if it were just released in the cinema, then later on DVD/Blu Ray/On Demand as usual. However, in all the talk about the release, I feel some have forgotten about the film a little.
Self-confessed coward Whitehead (Shearsmith) plays a who scholar deserts his duties during the English Civil War and soon meets up with three other deserters. At first, the group are relieved to have been forgotten, but soon their journey to an alehouse is marred by a meal of mushrooms and an encounter with sinister alchemist O’Neil (Smiley).
For me, A Field In England is something very special. It shows a director who knows exactly what he wants to do with a dedicated and talented team behind him backing him every second of the way. The film is a total package and beautifully constructed. Martin Pavey’s sound design is amazing, with eerie clanging and whistled songs filling the soundtrack. Also notable is the strange way in which voices appear as whispers during one particular scene, wrong-footing the viewer. The aural punishment of war manifests itself as a dull, muzzy confusion and is more than unsettling.
The look of it too, no doubt helped by the striking black and white colour scheme has depth and captivates, drawing viewers into the scenery. The editing is another important part of this, where scenes overlap, resulting in eyes staring through clouds over the travelling deserters. Obviously the editing comes into its own during the psychedelic segments, which speeds up the pace, merges images and generally attacks the viewer with all that it has. There are also surreal moments in which the film appears to utilise freeze frame, without actually freezing, meaning that characters seem to stare out of the film, almost begging for help.
The initial casting announcements were rather intriguing, thanks to a reliance on actors more well known for comic comedy than anything serious and hinted toward a comedic take, but this is not the case. A Field In England quickly becomes a film about grief, friendship, paranoia and duty, but that isn’t to say there isn’t some dark humour within it. Following on from stellar work on scripts for Kill List and Sightseers, writer Amy Jump has been able to weave in the sort of awkward and frequently funny conversations that would be had by such different men forced together by tragic circumstance. It also retains some of the tropes of previous Wheatley films in its constant building of arguments that are soon forgotten, but remain somewhere under the surface, ready to explode.
Speaking of the cast, Reece Shearsmith steals the show as cowardly but educated Whitehead and in the process creates one of the scariest images I’ve seen in a while. Without spoiling it, it may be one of the best uses of slow motion I’ve seen and I know I’ll be haunted by it for quite a while. The (admittedly brief) power struggle between Whitehead and Smiley’s terrifying O’Neil is intriguing and instantly displays the sort of power O’Neil is able to wield over the deserters. Despite carrying a 15 rating (lower than that of Kill List) it still has moments of gore, that for me, almost eclipses the brutality of his previous work.
In conclusion then, it would be a shame if all A Field In England is remembered for is its release strategy. However, I don’t think that can be the case. A film like this, I believe, will have some sort of impact on anyone who watches, be that positive or negative. A ballsy, ambitious and often twisted experiment that hits all the right notes.
A Field In England is available on DVD/BluRay/On Demand/in cinemas now. Also, UK readers can see it tonight, for free on Film 4 at 10.45pm