Ben Wheatley, the darling of low-budget British cinema, unleashes an ambitious surrealist arthouse project A Field in England. Constructed from the idea of an “assault on the audience” Wheatley sought to create a film that captures the experience of hallucinogenic drugs, but with its ambiguous imagery and convoluted narrative this pretentious trip leads the audience on a futile quest for meaning and entertainment.
Set against the backdrop of the English Civil War in the mid 17th Century, an alchemist named Whitehead flees the carnage of the battlefield and the wrath of this tyrannical master who sent him to capture a dangerous Irishman. After meeting up with three wandering soldiers on their way to an alehouse, the recently formed band of deserters set up camp in an expansive field and feast on a bounty of foraged mushrooms. Soon after, they encounter the mysterious stranger Whitehead was tasked with capturing and his bewitching influence sends their once playful trip descending into madness and treasure hunting.
A British Valhalla Rising; a simple, yet apt definition for Wheatley’s fourth feature film. While each film centres on an equally unique, ultra-violent, highly-stylised reworking of the historical drama, the results are vastly different. Rather than focussing on brooding atmosphere as Nicolas Winding Refn does in his masterfully allegoric Viking tale, Wheatley instils a level of typically British black comedy; a contributing factor in each of his previous films. Sharp and witty remarks are interspersed throughout the narrative and provide brief moments of joy, but fail to detract from the lukewarm reaction that this ostentatious, style over substance arthouse product provokes.
Continuing with the comparisons to Valhalla Rising, Refn showcased a talent for balancing style and substance within a complex, but notably coherent narrative that provided solid support for his thematic explorations and enigmatic imagery. Unfortunately, in Wheatley’s Lynch-esque enterprise not enough is explained. Wheatley intended to ask the audience to think, ponder the possibilities of his extensive symbolism and construct their own interpretations, but without the platform of a coherent story to support the obtrusive themes too much is left ambiguous and it’s hard to tell what’s happening.
With A Field In England, Wheatley does successfully create an unique experience. A crisp black and white aesthetic, hauntingly atmospheric soundtrack and kaleidoscopic editing combine to provide a fully immersive experience, particularly in its most psychedelic moments. Unfortunately, much like the drug trips Wheatley is hoping to emulate, it suffers from overuse. These moments of highly stylised experimental filmmaking may work in short bursts, but over the course of a feature length narrative they only leave the audience with a headache and contemplating if it was worth it; with the invariable answers, not really.
While it’s not the cinematic triumph audiences hoped for it remains an important film regardless. Compared to Down Terrace, Kill List and Sightseers it’s far from his finest production, but it may yet be remembered as Wheatley’s seminal work for its bravery with distribution. The director’s, and Film4’s, experimentation with multi-platform release – that saw the film released across cinemas, television, online streaming and pre-ordered home video on the same day – paid off. The financial success of the film may give filmmakers and studios faith in this method of distribution and provoke a welcome change to the current format.