Ben Wheatley is something of an anomaly in modern cinema. A critical darling who refuses to explore conventional narratives or give easy answers in his filmmaking, in only four feature films he has managed to convince the UK cinematic elite that he is the next big thing. I’m not so sure.
Having seen Wheatley’s Kill List, a film that transcends any definable genre, I went into A Field in England with some trepidation. Kill List was interesting and boasted a stunningly unsettling atmosphere, but was also oblique and let down by a tonally different third act. A Field in England was all that, and worse.
The ‘story’, if you can stretch the term that far, concerns four men attempting to reach a pub in the midst of the English Civil War. Except that gets thrown swiftly out the window and they’re instead forced to dig for some sort of treasure by a villainous alchemist (Michael Smiley). Confused yet? You will be.
A Field in England is the worst kind of ‘art’ film. Shot in striking black and white, it may well be Wheatley’s least accessible film yet. It is meandering, difficult and astonishingly self-indulgent. What strikes me as most bizarre is how critic-proof the film has proved. Like Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, it seems that reviewers are falling over themselves to praise its particular irritating brand of style over substance. The performances are fine, but we are never given any chance to bond with the characters, so their eventual inevitably gruesome demises elicit no reaction. The production (which only took 12 days) has an air of being thrown together on the spot: abandon all hope ye who enter here expecting a satisfying conclusion to anything.
It’s not all bad, to the filmmaker’s credit. There are some cracking lines courtesy of screenwriter Amy Jump (Wheatley’s wife), but even they are sometimes lost in dodgy sound mixing. A number of the scenes and images within the film are lasting and powerful, namely a trippy sequence towards the climax involving extreme mushroom ingestion and the haunting, horrifying moment where Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) enters the alchemist’s tent and begins to scream hideously at the sight of some unseen evil.
Much as I’m certain A Field in England would benefit from repeat viewings, it’s not a film I’m rushing to revisit in a hurry. If Wheatley is to be a saviour of British cinema, he’s got a lot of convincing to do.
A Field in England (2013), is distributed in the UK by Picturehouse Entertainment, Certificate 15. The film is also available on DVD and Blu-ray. Watch the trailer below: