We've Been Watching... A Field in England
For the past couple of months we’ve been running a regularly fortnightly feature at the Digital Fix which allows our contributors to talk about some of their off-duty viewings. That may be the latest blockbuster or a bunch of black and white movies on the Beeb – basically they can write about whatever they like. For this latest instalment, however, we have insisted on a common subject, namely Ben Wheatley’s latest ‘A Field in England’. Treated to a simultaneous multi-platform release on Friday – theatrical, video-on-demand, DVD and Blu-ray, Freeview – we find ourselves in a rare position whereby everyone is on the same page. So, what did we make of this trippy tale of magic and madness amidst the English Civil War…?
Anthony Nield: I get the impression that Wheatley has been taking notes from his BFI DVDs and Blu-rays. He’s mentioned in the past that he’s a fan of their Flipside brand (“a window onto a time in British cinema when real artists stalked our land”) and there’s ample evidence in A Field in England to suggest he’s been picking up the label’s discs on a regular basis. The key reference point would be Winstanley, Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s 1975 feature, which similarly told an English Civil War tale in black and white and on a low budget. Peter Watkins’ Culloden too, which also managed an impressive level of period recreation on limited resources. To these there is also a flavour of David Gladwell’s Requiem for a Village as well as certain titles in the Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow compilation, both of which tapped into a peculiar ‘Britishness’ with a particular attention to folklore, tradition and landscape. According to legend, mushroom circles provided portals to other dimensions where time moved at different speeds; the only way to escape was by having four men pull you out with a rope… (Further reference points: the use of tableaux reminded me greatly of Peter Greenaway, while the trip sequence recalled Gladwell’s An Untitled Film.)
Wheatley’s own stamp is on the material too, of course. The soundtrack especially, which makes A Field in England very much a film to experience. I only caught the FilmFour showing, but the general reaction seems to be one of watch on the biggest screen imaginable and at an impressive volume. Indeed, this is a film that needs to wash over its audience; you may not understand the finer plot details on a first viewing, but there’s no denying its power. (This is also why the whole live-blogging idea purveyed by the Guardian is so ridiculous. The fact that it also refused to properly engage with the material made it all the more infuriating.) With that said, the decision to make this an intimate a film as possible is the key to its success. Turning its back on the potential grandiosity of its English Civil War setting (as seen in Ken Hughes’ 1970 epic Cromwell and portions of Hammer’s The Scarlet Blade), A Field in England reduces itself to, effectively, a sparsely populated play. Here Amy Jump’s wonderfully juicy dialogue is allowed to come to life to the obvious delight of the performers. We all know of the talents of Michael Smiley and Reece Shearsmith, which is perhaps why the lesser-known Richard Glover stood out most of all. 8/10
Gary Couzens: I recorded the Film Four broadcast and watched it on Saturday morning. A mixed reception for me based on that one viewing. It does confirm that Ben Wheatley and his writing/editing partner Amy Jump are some of the more original and increasingly ambitious filmmakers in Britain at the moment. I’m sure there’s a piece to be written about genre in their work, especially how horror inflects what are not conventional horror genre works. (I haven’t seen his debut, Down Terrace, but I’ve seen Kill List, Sightseers and now this.) But I’m confused and on one viewing it lost me, and I’m not sure what it added up to. Kill List lost me in its final act - must go back and give that a second go sometime.
I’ll also mention for the record that, as per the end credits, it was shot not far away from me, at the Hampton Estates in Farnham, Surrey.
It was also in black and white Scope, a format that was so rare that in a Usenet thread ages ago, we could only find then half a dozen or so examples of new films in the format, going back to Manhattan in 1979 and including The Elephant Man, Suture, John Boorman’s The General and Tony Palmer’s Testimony (which does have colour sequences). Since then, Control was another one. But it’s a very rare format, combining two things which until quite recently were not especially TV-friendly, and done properly has a beauty all its own. Of course, black and white films (Scope or otherwise) are almost never shot on actual black and white 35mm stock nowadays - Schindler’s List was, but that was becoming the exception twenty years ago. Most often they would be shot on colour stock and printed in black and white, or these days digitally captured and colour-drained in post-production. A Field in England was the latter, and in its use of black and white did remind me of another post-1970 monochrome feature (shot in 35mm and 16mm Academy Ratio) not too dissimilar in subject matter but very different in treatment, Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s Winstanley. 7/10
Ian Sandwell: Where to start with Ben Wheatley’s latest feature? I guess that despite various dalliances with clarity, I didn’t fully understand just what it was all about. Instead, I just enjoyed going along for the trip. Magnificently shot by Laurie Rose (fast becoming one of the UK’s most dependable and excitable DoPs), the whole film looked and sounded incredible with excellent sound design. The latter heightened my favourite stop on the trip: *that* torture scene with its prolonged slow-motion screaming and its frankly disturbing climax.
But for all the first-class technical credits, it’s the cast that lifts A Field in England. Reece Shearsmith steals the film on numerous occasions, but huge credit has to go to Richard Glover in a role that, in lesser hands, could have just been comic relief. Aside from Shearsmith’s tremendous screaming and facial expressions post-torture, it’s Glover who provides the film’s other most memorable sequence when he reveals his true feelings about his wife.
Put simply, innovative release or not, A Field in England confirms Wheatley as one of the UK’s leading filmmakers. It adds to his building formidable back catalogue, dipping toes in various genres but always coming up with something that’s quintessentially Ben Wheatley. 9/10
John White: My big fear with this multiple platform release is that it represented a moment where our best young film-makers bent the knee to TV, forsaking the ambition and scope of the bigger screen. Well I am so glad to say I was wrong as Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump delivered a challenging, cinematic experience that resisted dumbing down or the limitations of their budget.
I found the opening was a tad prosaic, but once the story embraced the actual “field” and started to unfurl it became elegantly mysterious. By the end, I was entirely won over and considering the influences of films like Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General and The Draughtsman’s Contract whilst appreciating no empty homage was intended. I’ll need to watch it again before I can say if it’s better than Kill List but for me, along with Stoker, this is probably my favourite film this year. 9/10
Mike Sutton: Having been impressed by Ben Wheatley’s previous films, I had high expectations for A Field in England. Knowing it was in black and white Scope - perhaps my favourite photographic choice - I decided to go to an early evening cinema screening at the beautiful Hyde Park cinema in Leeds.
Sitting on the front row, I was enraptured for ninety minutes by Wheatley’s recreation of 17th century war and belief. It’s a bleak tale of war and brutality but it’s also about warmth and humanity, the need to connect and find comradeship - there’s a very Peckinpah-esque portrait of male relationships under moments of crisis.
Certainly, the film is sometimes wilfully obscure, despite Wheatley’s insistence that it’s all quite straightforward, and a knowledge of the nigredo stage of the alchemical process is, I would have thought, important to understanding what O’Neill and Whitehead are trying to achieve. But even if the actual narrative isn’t always clear, the major pleasures of the film remain evident; the superb cinematography, reminiscent of Winstanley and the films of Kobayashi and Shindo; the inventive and funny dialogue; and the exceptional performances.
Nick Chen: The Civil War setting and muddied costumes are overshadowed by drug use – specifically, whether the medium of film can capture the frenzied nightmare of magic mushrooms. It’s as if Wheatley challenged himself with a tiny budget and single location. To make it harder, the black-and-white palette prevents the clichéd multi-coloured whirlwind mainstream cinema tends to use (complete with a talking dog).
Wheatley’s method generates highly immersive images, often through simple editing and commitment to an offbeat cause. The quick-cut montage aggressively punches your eyes, while the rope-pulling segment transports digs at murkier regions of the imagination – all while never leaving the field.
There were plenty of surprisingly beautiful shots of the countryside in Sightseers, and even more appear here. One shot in particular shows a caterpillar crawling under the sun, creating a brief escape from the nightmare. These small details maintain an atmosphere that is propped up by warlike noises and deafening screams.
I am unsure about the bawdy humour – not as a matter of taste, but it occasionally removed me from the drama. When I slipped out, it diminished the action to just being stuck in an enclosed space with people on a drug trip. But when it works, it’s brain-rattling how the power of suggestion can build such a delicious headache. 8/10