"A Field In England"
review by Diablo Joe
now playing on Mubi
"A Field In England"
Ben Wheatley's visionary 2013 psychological folk-horror, "A Field in England," is newly streaming on MUBI (as well as available via other platforms). With the recent "Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched" documentary focusing on the folk-horror genre, as well as the success of recent films such as "The Lighthouse," Wheatley's film is well worth viewing in the context of those films.
Four men, three military deserters, and one alchemist's assistant escape the chaos of battle during The English Civil War only to be conscripted by the occultist O'Neill into hunting for treasure he insists is secreted in the field. To say much more of the film's "storyline" in such a brief paragraph as this would be a disservice to the film and result in a vexingly confusing synopsis. Suffice to say that these men find their reality stretched to the brink of madness, and Wheatly takes us brilliantly along for the ride.
"A Field" is considered one of the modern classics of its genre, with some saying it paved the way for a revival of pastoral and folk-themed horror. There may be much truth in that. But many of the subsequent movies, "Midsommer," "The VVitch," and others, may owe less to this film than they do its classic predecessors. Wheatly has created something that is strikingly unlike anything else in the genre, with perhaps the exception of the aforementioned "The Lighthouse." It is hallucinogenic (literally, as the minds of our characters fall prey to the mushrooms that grow in the field) and disorienting. Somehow, the stranger it gets, the more we accept what we are shown.
Wheatley's visual style here has been much praised, and "A Field" is a beautifully photographed film. Supposedly, Wheatley and longtime cinematographer Laurie Rose decided last minute to shoot the picture in black and white (and not color desaturated for distribution). It was a superb choice. Unlike "The Lighthouse," with its rich darkness crying out for your eye's exploration, "A Field in England" unfolds entirely in bright daylight. But as absent as black might be, so missing is white. The result is a film of stunningly infinite gray tones. And where Robert Eggers's film claustrophobically crushes its duo with its 1.19 : 1 aspect ratio, Wheatley and Rose use wide screen to throw their men into a vast, engulfing panorama of nature. And when things get truly weird, those vistas become positively electric.
The audio is as vital to suggesting the men's disassociation from sanity as are the visuals. Wheatley's use of sound is as original as his imagery. Wheatly distorts and plays games with time and reality, and his use of slow motion and staged tableaus in this mission is aided and abetted by the soundtrack. And Jim Williams music is equally as effective in this task.
The script, by Wheatley's wife and collaborator Amy Jump, is filled with rich, almost Shakespearean language. It is another layer of unreality, as the florid, poetic speech of the actors immediately forces us to pay close attention to their words. The actors, to a one, seem to relish their roles. From the alchemist assistant Whitehead, the brutal Cutler, the sneering and cruel O'Neill, career soldier Jacob, and the hapless—and aptly named—Friend, each character plays their part in Wheatley's madness. Particularly amusing is Friend, a fellow so unambitious that he has never bothered to look up and notice the stars (not that there seems to be a night in Wheatley's field), but who also seems perhaps the most peculiarly resilient of the group.
Ben Wheatly has touched on so many varied genres and themes in his oeuvre. "A Field in England" will undoubtedly be viewed as a benchmark no matter what more he might bring forth in the future. And while some might reach to a film like “The Witchfinder General” in a struggle to find its antecedents, it really may owe more to the works of, say, Alejandro Jodorowsky. In any case, Wheatly has made an original, engaging, and confounding mindf— of a film. And it is very worth watching.
This devil of a reviewer gives “A Field in England” 4 out of 5 imps.