A Field In England

A Field In England

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

A monochrome aesthetic and a pyschedelic mindset may sound like odd bedfellows but director Ben Wheatley has never been scared of strange brews, having previously married kitchen sink drama to comic crime thriller in Down Terrace and its much darker cousin Kill List, not to mention British camping comedy to serial killing mayhem in Sightseers. Here, he and and his off-screen and collaborative partner writer Amy Jump take a minimalist Peter Watkins style approach to this dark and often disturbing tale of a chance encounter during the mid-17th century English Civil War.

Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) is arguably the key character, himself a heady combination, being at once godfearing, a coward and an alchemist - described as he sets about what appears to be desertion as an "homunculus". This reference to a representation of a human being - or man in miniature - not only sets in motion the sense of sorcery and myth that pervades the film but also hints at Whitehead as an odd sort of Everyman, adding to the confusion of what - not to mention who - is real and imagined in the action that follows.

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Stumbling into a field, his ears ringing from the battle behind him, Whitehead meets Friend (Peter Ferdinando) and Jacob (Richard Glover) - who, in another indication that things may not be as they seem, initially appears to be dead. Also traversing the field is the crafty Cutler (Ryan Pope), the three somehow like the last remaining humans on earth. Striking up an odd alliance on the promise of food and a pub, Cutler offers them some stew filled, unbeknowst to his fellow travellers, with magic mushrooms. Alhough Whitehead refuses to partake, this concoction sees the action slide further from the blackly comic to the deeply sinister with the appearance of Cutler's master O'Neil (Michael Smiley) - a ruthless Irishman with sorceror stylings, who ensnares the help of the other three for his treasure quest in a chilling scene that relies on its soundscape to convey its psychosexual horror.

Echoes of cinema and stage past abound, from the absurdist elements that see characters literally roped together recalling the likes of Waiting For Godot, to the political hints and strange snapshot tableaux that bring the Seventies political theatre greats such as Howard Brenton to mind, not to mention the influence of British horrors such as The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General. The conflict between being "your own man" or subject to the whim of the Fates provides tension, although those looking for a straightforward narrative may find this sudden turn to more arthouse stylings from Wheatley too much to take. There is also some conflict within the script itself, which although mostly styled as a bawdy riff on the period, occasionally includes much more modern words such as "catchy". Whether this is deliberate or not, it breaks the spell. The performances hold you, however, particularly that of Smiley, who has been walking through Irishman 'heavy' roles in the likes of We Are The Freaks, For Those In Peril and Svengali lately but deserves much better.

Many of the images captured by Wheatley's regular cinematographer Laurie Rose are haunting - in particular, an early dislocating rough and tumble through the grass and a late, kaleidoscopic sequence that explores questions of identity through some of the trippiest black and white imagery you'll have seen on the big screen for a long time. The spirit of experimentation extends to the way the film will be released this Friday, when it will be simultaneously available on DVD in, cinemas, through video on demand and shown on Film4. But there is slightly less here than you feel there ought to be. For all its heavy symbolism, the decision to be wilfully difficult with the audience may speak as much to covering up its lack of narrative depth as to a desire to make you dig for more treasure.

Reviewed on: 01 Jul 2013
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A Field In England packshot
Four men have a strange encounter during the English Civil War.
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Director: Ben Wheatley

Writer: Amy Jump

Starring: Michael Smiley, Reece Shearsmith, Peter Ferdinando, Ryan Pope, Julian Barratt

Year: 2013

Runtime: 86 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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