Movie Review – A Field in England (2013)
In 1648 the English countryside was host to violent clashes and skirmishes between the Parliamentarian “Roundheads” and the Royalist “Cavaliers”. Their dispute was over the nature of government – who should govern and how – and it called into question that long held belief that kings ruled by divine right, God’s personal decree. The outcome was the trial and execution of Charles I and the establishment of the English Commonwealth, which would in turn become the Orwellian-sounding Protectorate which was overseen by the dictatorial, middle-gentry Oliver Cromwell. An intensely religious man who believed God guided his victories, it’s reasonable to ask whether divine right had indeed been usurped.
It is against this backdrop of class struggle and theological strife that Ben Wheatley’s 2013 film A Field in England takes place, and deals largely with these same philosophical issues as the characters try to find their way in a world where the rules appear to be quickly changing. We follow four deserters as they are accosted by a greedy alchemist and forced to dig for treasure in a barren English field. Psychedelic mushrooms are ingested along the way, creating opportunities for Wheatley to indulge in experimentalist cinema. Wheatley had already gained a reputation as a notable independent filmmaker with the successes that were 2011’s Kill List and 2012’s darkly comical Sightseers. Proving himself versatile and able to expand his craft, he approaches A Field with an art-house eye, filming the tale in black and white and interspersing the telling with surrealist hallucinations and freeze frames, molding a film in the vein of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977).
The script is written by Amy Jump, and she creates rich dialogue of prose and poo, effectively capturing the historical period while adding depth to the characters. The acting all around is solid, with Reece Shearsmith as the naïve Whitehead, in particular, standing out.
While there’s much to admire about A Field in England, there are times when the experimental quality becomes more obstructing than enriching. The plot can be difficult to discern at times, and the film’s experimental nature can make searching for meaning in many of the scenes an act or futility. At times, the surrealism feels over-indulgent, and it requires a patient and forgiving viewer to stick with the film. I enjoyed my time watching it, yet despite my being a lover of both horror and historical drama, I don’t see this as a film I will return to again and again.