A Field in England is a testament to what weirdness the husband-and-wife, writer-director combo Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump can conjure up with just a handful of ingredients.
In this case, the ingredients are: the English Civil War, five men dressed in detailed, dirty period costumes, mushrooms, black-and-white digital video, and loads of psychedelic editing tricks. The end product is a fever dream — a sweaty, delirious plunge into medieval devilry that seemingly takes risk after risk just for the hell of it. Far more fun than sinister, the film doesn’t even try to make sense of its own madness. And for a low-budget conjuring such as this, that’s totally OK with me.
The story (if we can call it that) starts off in the outskirts of some nameless battle. We see the closest thing to a protagonist — a man later identified as Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) -– hiding in a bush, praying that God spare his life. The craven-looking creature had been tasked with retrieving some mystic documents that were stolen from his master’s library by an amoral Irishman named O’Neil. When Whitehead’s life is spared, he then wanders off into a field with a few other deserters. They talk of going to an ale house, and then make a stew with some sinister-looking mushrooms.
A dirty gloom then settles over everything. It’s not long after this that O’Neil (Michael Smiley) appears, taking the whole bunch captive and forcing them to dig for buried treasure. Occult rituals are performed and the film harnesses the power of Christian mysticism, funneling it through a kaleidoscope that swirls with jet-black blood, smoke and cloud.
At a whim, Wheatley takes us off on various tangents. At one moment, we’ll see a deserter — the dim-witted one; each has his own signature characteristic — singing a beautiful song about his son, facing directly to the camera. Then, moments later, everyone on screen will appear frozen, in tableaux vivant (in which the actors hold a pose you might see in a romantic painting, winking and wiggling just slightly.) Then, somewhere in the film’s third act, the edits will become frantic for minutes on end, quickly meshing slow motion action sequences together into a strobe-light-like pulsing hallucination that could seriously induce seizures. It’s all seems like style for the sake of style, empty but beaming with the joy inherent in skate or snowboarding videos. Tricks are fun, in other words. Thankfully, Wheatley and Jump have lots of them.
Last year, the two surprised me with the goofy-gory black comedy Sightseers. While A Field in England isn’t of the same genre, the pair’s comic chops are easily evident. They repeatedly go for the gross-out with shots of ankles exploding when hit with musket fire, and we even see genital warts on the manhood of the foul-mouthed, lusty deserter. Mushrooms are mashed into faces, and men struggle loudly to move their bowels. Yet, the dirtiness of all this gives the movie texture, a grounded human murkiness that contrasts with the holy war waged between Whitehead and O’Neil.
What A Field in England might have had to say about religion or war I haven’t the foggiest. Try as I might, I couldn’t distill a theme or concept from the mess. I doubt even an English person — with some knowledge on 17th Century England — could either. While the whole movie might have been stronger had all its parts worked toward a common goal, the chaos that we do witness is so fun and wicked and weird that it stands out against all those films Hollywood loves to inject with CGI Botox. This is spectacle on a smaller scale, and yet the magic mushrooms pack a twisted gut punch that’s hard to shake. Go on, just it.
A Field In England is playing at St. Anthony Main.