A Field in England

Ben Wheatley’s first film Down Terrace was a low budget crime thriller that he shot in a week. It got him some attention and won him some awards, including The Evening Standard British Film Awards for Best Newcomer.

Unfortunately having not seen the film there is little else I can say about it but a gong from The Evening Standard is a good thing to have on your mantle piece. The Evening Standard somehow remains a serious voice in film criticism even though the late, great, easily shocked and overly sensationalist critic Alexander Walker has gone and the paper itself has become a low brow gossip rag. Their film awards consistently make some of the most interesting and perceptive choices of the awards seasons having recently commended both the superb Andrea Riseborough and the staggeringly brilliant Olivia Colman when everyone else overlooked them.

Ben Wheatley’s second film was a shockingly violent and spooky hit man thriller but it couldn’t have been further away from other classics of the sub-genre. This was no Grosse Pointe Blank, unless I missed the bit where John Cusack cracked open a man’s hand with a hammer only for his victim to thank him profusely for his coming assassination. Nonetheless Kill List was an excellent piece of film making which brought to mind other classic movies such as The Wicker Man. Despite the influence of great British cinema from the 70s, here was a film that felt original. It was a real calling card for a director who clearly makes films the way he wants with no compromise, which is always a good thing (unless you’re Tom Six, or Michael Bay).

Ben Wheatley’s follow up to Kill List was Sightseers which I think was brilliant but even now, two months after watching it, I’m not sure. It might have actually been a little bit too dark. I mean clearly I liked it but the problem is that I’m just not sure how comfortable I am with with the fact that I liked it.

All of this brings us to A Field in England, released today in cinemas, on home cinema and on download while also being scheduled for broadcast tonight at 10.45pm on Film4. This could be a significant step forward in terms of audience choice or it might just be that they didn’t quite know what to do with this odd little film.

A Field in England is set during the English Civil war where three soldiers and an educated man servant have stumbled/scrambled over a hedgerow and out of battle. They decide that rather than immediately reenter the action they will instead stroll across the field they’ve found themselves in and head for the nearest ale house. Initially it is a gently amusing comedy of manners as the men banter and the script riffs on Cromwellian language without seeming anachronistic. Then they eat some magic mushrooms and you can guess where it goes from there. Soon they are inexplicably pulling on a rope with Michael Smiley’s Irish Satanist on the end of it and while this is clearly a little weird, it is nothing compared to what comes later.

It is initially quite reminiscent of Waiting for Godot as they start to search the eponymous field for some elusive dark treasure but it gets increasingly surreal and in doing so is highly intriguing. The humour continues throughout but like Wheatley’s other films it is by turns both funny and discomforting as things turn violent. Of the director’s other work it is probably closest to Kill List in style and the points in which a hint of the supernatural begins to creep in will seem familiar to viewers of that movie. Unlike Kill List though this isn’t played ambiguously for long and pretty soon it has gone full on Bergman Beelzebub bonkers.

The final imagery is hallucinogenic but impressive, the performances are good and I think I liked it (happy to admit that this time). I’m not sure I would give it a wholehearted recommendation and if you are not already a fan of the director’s work this probably isn’t the one to start with. Normally I’d say wait until it is on TV or DVD but on this occasion you don’t have to.

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