A Field in England
Ben Wheatley seems to be the new darling of British cinema, with all the hazards that brings. A horror buff with art house pretensions, he provides instant sustenance to the cult crowd. The rave receptions of both Kill List and Sightseers, and his ability to hit all the right notes in adoring interviews, has established him as a man who can do no wrong. His latest has met with chin-stroking approval from the critics, but he’s probably none too surprised at the less united response from audiences.
And the naysayers may have a point. Wheatley has bags of style but needs to work on the substance. The originality and flair of A Field in England make it intermittently engrossing, but ultimately rather empty. That’s not so much due to the hype surrounding Wheatley as his promises of hidden depths left unfulfilled.
The setting is the English Civil War. Alchemist’s assistant Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) flees a battleground only to be apprehended by Cutler (Ryan Pope), who has two other captives (Jacob, played by Peter Ferdinando and Richard Glover’s Friend). He leads them all to a field where they are forced to ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms (they don’t look much like the trippy variety, but I’ll let that go), although Whitehead demurs. Pulling on a rope, they find O’Neill (Michael Smiley) at the end of it. It turns out that O’Neill has stolen alchemical texts and occult instruments belonging to his and Whitehead’s master (“an eminent alchemist, physician and astronomer”). O’Neill charges Whitehead, more skilled in the arts than he, with finding treasure buried in the field.
That’s the gist of it, but the result is an intentionally semi-coherent exercise in stretching a slender idea to breaking point, almost as if Wheatley felt the need to bulk a short film out to feature length so he could add it to his high turnover of features.
Field takes the occult undercurrents of Kill List and runs with them in a wilfully oblique direction. The director embraces the restrictions of a low budget production to the extent that he frequently summons the spectre of an experimental student film, with all the inadvisable pretension and not so impressive visual conceit that implies. Set against such shortcomings is the frequent beauty of the cinematography (from regular Wheatley lenser Laurie Rose). On occasions the images do look rather flat, announcing that they were indeed shot against a hedge on someone’s farm. But at others there’s a majesty to the black and white photography, evoking a heightened sense of place and time and instilling an unnerving atmosphere.
There’s something to be said for Wheatley’s attempts to rediscover the high strangeness of England, its folklore and pagan heritage. This kind of subject matter has rarely been tapped since the heights of Hammer, and there are a multitude of possibilities. If Kill List was his gangland twist on The Wicker Man, the roots of Field lie in Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw (a most peculiar film, one that at first sight might be dismissed as just another Hammer but is well worth investigating).
Wheatley and his wife/collaborator/screenplay writer Amy Jump have again come up with an arresting premise, which then struggles to find a firm footing. Nothing is quite so startling as the rope-pulling sequence, with its hints of just-out-of-reach magical realms (apparently this references a means of pulling someone within a mushroom circle back from the fairie kingdom). There are intriguing and unexplained signs; the runes coughed up by Whitehead, the woodcut on the stake the rope is bound round. The unseen experience of poor, cowardly Whitehead within O’Neill’s tent and his subsequent bewitched scouring of the field (now he is bound with a rope, lest he be lost) is shot and scored for maximum aberrance. But somehow it is not quite so inspired. There’s a sense that Wheatley’s metaphysical dabbling must inevitably be dragged back down to earth, buried beneath his penchant for mud and blood and guts. Most likely he would shy away from the fractured temporal subjectivity Nicolas Roeg brings to his films, or find himself unable to elevate his rather literal strangeness to the more exotic musings of David Lynch.
So Field takes The Shining 101 approach to impenetrable narrative; clarity is the enemy of longevity. The greater the scope for interpretation, the more inevitable will be its cult following. And, like Kubrick, Wheatley fully embraces the disconcerting potential of sound. Except that here it feels like a repetitive, undiscerning tactic. Yes, discordancy is provocative. But it shouldn’t be a crutch.
And one must conclude that Wheatley is not so interested in exploring character or theme as he is the visceral and aesthetic possibilities before him. He nurses a detachment from his characters, observing them without affection (I’m thinking of Kill List too). As a result, only the surface effects resonate; there’s a superficiality akin to a horror director whose foremost concern is with the number of scares he can pack in, or an action director measuring his success on the number of explosions he detonates.
During the early stages there is much in the way of ribald talk to offset the stilted period language. There’s also shitting and pissing and proffered cocks. Wheatley has couched this in terms of emphasising the historical connection of man to nature, to the countryside and the English field. But it is more suggestive of the internal struggle between his loftier ideas and an impulse to wallow in the carnal and corporeal.
He ticks back and forth between these. At several stages actorly tableaus are unwisely configured. Then he goes mental with a te-minute stroboscopic ’80s pop video (the point where I gave up the will). So inevitably, when some semblance of narrative propulsion is clawed back during the finale, this is replete with loving composed shots of exploding legs and heads.
There was a point when Neil Marshall was the next big thing in British genre filmmaking, until he duly disappeared up his own arse with Doomsday. In some respects, Wheatley is a more creative version of Marshall; he’s sufficiently inspired and he is to be commended for trying something different, but he suffers from similar failings. Wheatley’s a capable director, and his pet obsessions are potent and fresh, but he really needs to hone his storytelling and develop a discernible attachment to his vassals.
Speaking of whom, I can’t fault the travelling players. Smiley and Shearsmith are astutely cast, the former embracing his potential for off-beam malevolence. Shearsmith convincingly conveys the transformation from a cravenly timid man of letters to a possessed and purposeful bringer of death. And Pope, Ferdinando and Glover, none of whom I’m particularly familiar with, bring a naturalism to bear that is both grounding and simultaneously makes the whole seem even more uncanny.
Does the resurrection of characters (one more than once) mean that that none of this ever happened? That they’re ghosts summoned from the battlefield, to work for O’Neill in another realm (we don’t know whether he was being pulled into or out of the fairie world; he also claims to have conjured Whitehead)? Or that, by overcoming his fear (albeit aided by copious hallucinogens), Whitehead saves his co-captives (and condemns his captors)? And, if the “treasure” is a skull, whose skull is it? The trouble is, Wheatley never engages the head nor the heart sufficiently that these questions really matter. And you can be sure that, whatever explanation (if there is one) he has locked away in his bonce, it will disappoint as much as the ridiculously overblown denouement of Kill List.
I thought the trailer for Field looked hilariously bad, the sort of self-involved atrocity drama students might come up with if they were deposited in the countryside with a camera and a few fancy-dress costumes. And then Matt Berry would spoof of it (Julian Barratt’s cameo treads a fine line). Fortunately, the trailer doesn’t do the film justice at all, but Wheatley does seem to think that hints and portents and conjuring give him a free pass. As long as it’s all a bit weird and unexplained and occult, a horror-tinged JJ Abrams Mystery Box (well, a Damon Lindelof one anyway), people will lap it up. And he’s probably right. To an extent. As the reaction to the finale of Lost showed, such an approach can only carry you so far.