A Field in England

- Just follow the rope.

– Just follow the rope.

I’ve never seen a film like A Field in England before. Newcomer Ben Wheatley’s latest film is his most obscure, surreal and artistic effort to date.  It’s a far-cry from the grim realism of Kill List, and will most likely be labelled pretentious by many. After all, this is a black and white 17th century psychedelic war-drama focussed on metaphysical themes that features The League of Gentlemen‘s Reece Shearsmith and Julian Barratt from The Mighty Boosh. I’m sure that after that sentence those who would despise the film outright have run for hills… so let us continue.

The beating of drums, horns being blown and shuffling feet: these are the sounds that open A Field in England, along with some ambient bass notes. England is in the grip of civil war, but this film does not plan on delving into historical realism… We are introduced to Whitehead (Shearsmith), a somewhat apprehensive and cowardly alchemist’s apprentice who is trying to desert the scene of a raging battle. Julian Barratt as a staunch cavalry commander is shouting after him, using a barrelful of expletives, before he is speared through the chest and dies pointing at Whitehead with a maniacal and accusatory look. So, Julian Barrett is dead, two minutes in!? He was a lead character according to the credits! Oh, don’t worry, in this film, just because someone has been savagely killed, doesn’t stop them from coming back…

Whitehead walks along the hedgerow to find a rag-tag bunch of deserters, who convince him to traipse across the countryside with them in search of the nearest inn. This is the simple premise of A Field in England, serving as the tenuous plot that structures the next ninety minutes. However, the group get rather diverted when they gobble down a stew made from magic mushrooms, and here, strangely enough, things start to go slightly nuts.

The group find a rope that leads to nowhere, they start questing after an obscure alchemical device, horrible things are done behind tent-flaps that turn men into grossly grinning zombies. There is so little cause and effect in this film that it is just downright unnerving. As a viewer, you almost feel like you’ve feel lassoed and dragged along on this perverse, diabolical quest.

Cinematography-wise, this film is spot on; for as the trip gets increasingly more disjointed and nonsensical, we are greeted with abrupt, jolting cuts, that contribute greatly to the sense of unease this film will inevitably inspire. Special mention must be made of a psychedelic ‘experience’ towards the end of the film, a scene that will doubtless go down in film-making history. Possibly one of the most inventive, accurate and downright intense portrayals of drug-use in a feature film, it is worth watching on its own, even if the rest of this bemusing film puts you off.

There is a lot going on thematically in this film, but like a lot of surrealist works, those themes are the only thin tendrils holding it together. And they’re not even that tangible or self-explanatory at that. There’s a lot about divinity and cosmology, determinism and free will (where the rope imagery comes in) and sensory experience vs. intellectual experience. All set against a very particular 17th century background which seems to be relevant but I still can’t quite figure out how…

Ok, so there’s all that stuff going on in it, but what is A Field in England actually like to watch? Well, at first, rather boring. The dull monochrome, slightly-flawed acting and mumbling characters don’t prove for an engaging beginning. But then when it all goes ape-shit, you can’t help but be slightly perplexed and enraptured. I felt profoundly uncomfortable during the middle sections of the film, which were perhaps the most engaging, before it devolved into a hectic, action-heavy ending which seemed rather inconsequential and meaningless.

Looking over this last paragraph, it’s all quite negative, and if I used a star system to rate films I have absolutely no idea how A Field in England would fare…probably not very well at all. Yet, this is a film that I doubt I’ll ever forget, and I felt that it was a completely worthwhile use of the ninety minutes I spent watching it. It is incredibly low budget, the acting is pretty dreadful and it isn’t entertaining for long-stretches at a time… But I’ve also never even dreamed of some of the sequences this film has shown me.

If you’re into strongly visual cinema or a fan of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films, this is for you. If you like pre-enlightenment allegorical morality plays, this is also for you. Otherwise, Ben Wheatley’s latest film is a rather hard pill to swallow. Or should I say mushroom? Either way, it’s stuck in my throat, and it still won’t quite let me forget about it…

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Kill List

Come for a ride into the mind of Ben Wheatley...

Come for a ride into the mind of Ben Wheatley…

My attention was drawn to Ben Wheatley due to the recent release of A Field in England; an exceptionally strange film that fits snugly into the genre of 17th century psychedelic war-drama. Talk about a film standing in its own field…ahaha. *ahem.* Anyway, intrigued by this young up-and-coming director, I decided it was time to delve into the odd, oppressive world of Wheatley.

Kill List is Wheatley’s second feature-length film and certainly his most well-known. It follows Jay (Neil Maskell), a slightly gritty family man, who is starting to be ground down by the twin pressures of his marriage and the financial debt looming over his head. An opportunity presents itself however, when his old friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his girlfriend come over for what is to be a painfully awkward dinner. We then learn that Jay and Gal have a shared past in the assassination business, and that a new hit has come up; a job for which Jay comes highly recommended. After he reluctantly accepts, the film follows Jay and Gal’s execution of the job, which leads the duo down a rather dark trail…

Sounds like a relatively bog-standard British crime thriller, right? Well as it turns out, Kill List is one of the most inventive, astonishing and downright harrowing films I have seen in recent years. Trust me, there’s no hyperbole here. From midway through the film I was leaning forward, entranced, my mouth slightly open in disbelief. By the time the credits rolled, I felt like I had been hit by a train. Five minutes after the credits had finished rolling, I was still staring at the screen and saying ‘fuck’ under my breath.

Why is it so shocking? Well, the violence for one thing. Some of the scenes in Kill List are just downright nasty, but not in a voyeuristic or stylised way. The setting is just so relatable, with recognisable two-up two-down houses, typical English cul-de-sacs, and Neil Maskell cuts an utterly believably character. When violence does erupt therefore, it is just very close to home, and executed with an ethos of savagery-over-style that makes you believe that this could happen right on your front doorstep. I would like to add the disclaimer that if you are at all squeamish, THIS IS NOT FOR YOU. Wheatley doesn’t want us to look away from the barbarous acts he portrays, and he has built a film so compelling around it, that it pretty much feels like he’s holding your head to the screen, forcing you to watch.

More importantly however, Kill List shocks because of its structure; namely, its insane defiance of genre expectations. This starts off as a kitchen-sink domestic drama. We are pulled into a world of marital squabbles, drunken bonding and bedtimes stories. Then, a third of the way through the film, it turns into something completely different: a hard-boiled, murky crime thriller. And then… oh, and then… let’s just say it changes into something rather different entirely. This is an acrobatic film, using every tool at its disposal to ease you in and get you comfortable with the characters, providing you with some gripping intrigue, and only then, once you realise it’s got you in its unforgiving talons, it throws the whole goddamn playbook out of the window.

Ben Wheatley has proved himself to be a master manipulator through his form, but the technique isn’t even cheap, because everything else in Kill List stands up to scrutiny. The cinematography is novel and effective, using abrupt cuts and black screens to give a rough-edged, erratic feel that suits the content perfectly. All of the roles are played competently and convincingly, giving the impression of an extremely solid film.

You can clearly see the influence of Shane Meadows in Wheatley; this is a film that owes quite a lot to Dead Man’s Shoes’ ruddy bleakness. But there is much more anger and anarchism in Wheatley’s approach to filmmaking; this is someone who is not afraid to take massive liberties with conventions in order to get his visceral point across. This becomes even more apparent in A Field in England which will be the subject of my next instalment…