Only the other day I was thinking that there aren’t that many weird films any more. I don’t mean films about weird things, I mean films that are properly weird, that mess with your head, that take place inside their own little universes where rules apply that they never explain to you because, well, that’s part of the fun of the viewing experience.
And so now, along comes A FIELD IN ENGLAND, Ben Wheatley’s latest movie after SIGHTSEERS (also reviewed on this site) and KILL LIST. It’s certainly a very weird film indeed, although how ultimately successful it is in its intentions is always going to be a matter for debate, as I very much suspect those responsible for making it didn’t really know what it was they actually wanted to achieve.
It’s a very curious mixture of “period” CARRY ON, VALHALLA RISING, Jean Rollin film and, oddly enough, gave me the same sense of detached otherworldliness as Roddy McDowall’s weird and obscure 1970 BritHorror THE BALLAD OF TAM LIN (aka THE DEVIL’S WIDOW). I’ll warn you now - if you didn’t get on with any of the above then you’re really going to hate this one.
A FIELD IN ENGLAND is supposedly set during the English Civil War. Escaping from a skirmish, alchemist’s assistant Reece Shearsmith finds himself as one of four escapees who, while trudging across a field in search of the nearest pub, come across a rope tied around an ornately carved wooden stake. The urge to pull on this somehow reveals a fifth man, O’Neill (Michael Smiley) who, it turns out, has stolen some artefacts from Shearsmith’s master, including a scrying glass and various occult tomes. O’Neill believes a great treasure is buried in the field and he then goes about getting the others to dig it up for him by means of coercion and the mind-altering mushrooms (I think) that are growing in the field.
From then on things get seriously weird, culminating in a trippy sequence that smacks of a desperate need to fill up the running time and having no other idea how to do it other than use bits of film that have already been shot and then subject them to various schoolboy editing techniques. The ending, unsurprisingly, is extremely oblique, leaving one to ponder whether there is some deep meaning to it all, or whether Wheatley and his screenwriter Amy Jump really just don’t have a clue how to finish a story.
Opinion on A FIELD IN ENGLAND seems to have divided audiences very much into ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ camps. The art-house audience we saw it with in a packed cinema loved it and there was an almost palpable air of excitement in the bar afterwards, which is always a good thing to see. I didn’t love it quite as much as that, but I certainly didn’t hate it. I do, however, remain unconvinced that there was any great plan during its making to produce something of enigmatic profundity.
Of course at the end of the day, does that matter? This is still a film I’m thinking about two days after I saw it and that has to count for something. That said, there’s much in the film that didn’t work for me. Shearsmith is very good indeed, but Smiley lacks the gravitas to be the Utterly Soulless Villain his role seems to call for. Dialogue and music are both spot on occasionally, but too often they serve to undermine any atmosphere the moody black and white photography has managed to build.
I said the film is supposedly set during the English Civil War because there’s a curious lack of authenticity to the proceedings that meant that during the entire running time I had the strangest feeling it was going to be revealed that we were actually witnessing a Sealed Knot reconstruction, or that at the end we would find out that these people were actually psychiatric patients wandering the grounds of their long-term institution in an echo of the cricket match in Skolimowski’s THE SHOUT. By the very end I was at least hoping for some kind of E R Eddison-like circular conclusion, suggesting that these men had been cursed by Shearsmith’s offscreen master to endlessly wander around a field, pointlessly digging holes in their own personal purgatory forever. Instead everything just peters out in an almost raspberry-in-the-face way that makes the film feel less substantial than it probably deserves to.
The saving grace of A FIELD IN ENGLAND is Ben Wheatley’s direction. There are some shots in this picture that are stylish, some that are gorgeous, and a few that are really quite breath-taking. The movie has already succeeded in creating strong opinions, and I do believe that Ben Wheatley is a very good film-maker. He could be a great film-maker. In fact he could be the next Michael Reeves. If he wants to remain the darling of the art house crowd he doesn’t really need to do anything else, at least for now, as they all seem to love him. But if he wants to be more successful than that, he’s only going to achieve it if he finds a good writer, and gets a strong producer like Tony Tenser behind him to give Mr Wheatley a good kick up his arse whenever he threatens to disappear up inside it.