A Field in England (Director: Ben Wheatley): Tom Stoppard meets Peter Watkins in A Field in England. Monty Python wanders in and out, offering the other two hallucinogenic mushrooms. That sounds flippant, but Ben Wheatley’s fourth feature is an intoxicating mixture of historical drama, political allegory and magic realist psychological horror film, with jokes. There’s lots to like here, but also lots to baffle.
Our tale begins during the English Civil War, when a Royalist coward finds himself away from the battle in the company of two Roundhead deserters. A fourth arrives and suggests they all leave the area and find the nearest pub. But what starts off as an almost buddy comedy soon turns very dark indeed. Soon they fall under the command, if not the spell, of O’Neil, a sadistic man who once served the same master as Whitehead, the Royalist deserter who becomes the protagonist of the film. It turns out that O’Neil has stolen some documents from his former master, an alchemist, and needs Whitehead to help him decipher them. He’s searching for buried treasure in the overgrown field where they wind up.
The first half of the film feels like a stage play, partly due to the fixed location but also due to Amy Jump’s sharply written screenplay, which swings from ribald peasant jokes to the high-flown language of the aristocracy and their hangers-on. But Wheatley shifts gears when his characters (inadvertently?) eat mushrooms with psychotropic qualities, adding even more menace to the plot’s dark turn. The narrative is stripped down to the point where almost every word and action feels allegorical, which may annoy some, but it made me much more interested in the historical context of the film. The Civil War (or more correctly, wars) was ostensibly a struggle to make the monarchy more accountable to the people, or at least to the landowning gentry. In practice, the common man was simply cannon fodder for both sides, and the beginning of the film promises our characters an escape and maybe a safe haven from not only the fighting, but from the rigid class strictures of English society. Inevitably, the greed and lust for power of others soon corrupts our “band of brothers” and only the simple virtues of friendship and loyalty might be able to save them.
That’s a pretty shopworn theme, but the setting and smart script make it interesting. Not so much, though, the many experimental sections Wheatley hurls at us, especially late in the film. One extended hallucination scene is overcooked to the point of exhaustion, with strobing effects and fast cutting that seem at odds with the material. There are also a few plot elements that throw the viewer into a confusion that seems designed to make the film “deeper” than it needs to be.
The black and white cinematography and careful attention to sound design do contribute to making this much more than a scarier stage production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and the specific setting is more than just set dressing. The film’s constant sense of foreboding extends far beyond the human villain to encompass the uncertain future of England. What happens when we challenge The Great Chain of Being? Do we find treasure, or just bones?