Film Review: A Field in England

Comparisons to the superb 1968 historical shocker <i>Witchfinder General</i> are inevitable, as is the suggestion that there's a bit of Ambrose Bierce's <i>An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge</i> here, but Ben Wheatley's third feature carves out its own nic

Set in the mid-17th century during the English Civil War, A Field in England follows four deserters—educated man-servant and self-proclaimed alchemist Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith); God-fearing and none-too-bright cooper Friend (Richard Glover); womanizer Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), who laments with some regularity the lack of women in the field; and Cutler (Ryan Pope)—who band together and set out for an alehouse Cutler claims is somewhere nearby. They instead cross paths with O'Neill (Michael Smiley), a sinister Irishman who claims there's a vast treasure buried beneath the field where they stand, and first enlists, then compels their assistance in unearthing it. But their troubles truly start after a meal of mushrooms that turn out to be the psilocybic sort and transform an already psychologically fraught situation into an emotional minefield.

Complaints that very little actually happens in A Field in England are misdirected, in that it's a movie in which everything that matters takes place between the ears, both before and after the ’shrooms begin working their mind-warping magic: Its focus is the wages not of sin—which the pious Friend believes is the root of their misfortunes—but of thinking. Some of the less-than-merry band think too little and too late, while others think too much and doubt their way into disaster.

Ben Wheatley’s third feature (after Kill List and Sightseers) is a bold gamble on the willingness of moviegoers to engage actively with a narrative that twists and turns on words rather than deeds, one that relies on screenwriter Amy Jump's skill at manipulating the poetry of everyday speech. She comes through admirably: The language is vivid, witty and often poetic without ever sounding pretentious or improbable emerging from the mouths of even the least educated and articulate of the characters. "I fear he has passed all bounds of Christianity," says one of O'Neill, who has by then proved himself willing to terrorize, torture and otherwise torment the men he's pressganged into his quest for riches. "He dresses well, though," his companion replies, and indeed he does. Were O'Neill not clearly in such firm command of his swirling cape, one might wonder why it lacks its own billing, and Whitehead's increasingly filthy and frayed frilly cuffs (which he no doubt made himself, since he confesses that he numbers lace-making among his skills) speak as eloquently as he does.

A Field in England is genuinely funny, albeit in a grimly rueful way that only makes the grubby hell through which its characters are dragged more vividly dreadful, and matter-of-factly frank about what a nasty business ordinary life was in the 17th century, from the ravages of "too much venereal sport" (and yes, we see the proof, a poxy penis, as Whitehead examines it at arm's length) to the indignities incumbent on relieving oneself in what turns out to be a patch of nettles. War is just another circle of hell.