Ben Wheatley is undoubtedly the up and coming presence in dark British comedies. His films are located in a pseudo-reality, somewhere between Godard and Beckett where the background is familiar but something is not quite right – the families in Down Terrace and Kill List are uncomfortably callous about human life, while his latest film Sightseers took the collective British nostalgia and turned it into something far darker.
A Field in England is no different in sidestepping detailed realism in favour of psychological insights and perception pieces that don’t quite seem of this world. This isn’t a film about Roundhead and Cavaliers like the swashbuckling adventure romances of the ‘50s, nor is it a celebration of British radicalism like the BFI oddity Winstanley. Instead the English Civil War provides the backdrop for Wheatley’s portrayal of a rouge society, founded on an obscure and at times confusing mix of magic, treasure and psychedelic mushrooms. It’s a fitting backdrop given the relative obscurity of the period, so long ignored by curriculums in favour of more patriotic times, where the king was not headless and Great Britain not torn apart by violent civil wars.
The aesthetics of the film reflect this confused moment in national history – the field is bare, as are the black and white visuals, which pick up none of the celebrated colour of the countryside. Combined with the weird bursts of dialogue this makes A Field in England Wheatley’s most ambitious and experimental film to date. It’s hard to decipher whether the experiment works. Certainly the film is enjoyable for its absurd moments – some of the odder scenes wouldn’t feel out of place in a Beckett novel, while the script is delightful in its quirks. The cast are also fantastic, particularly League of Gentlemen star Reece Shearsmith who excels as the captured alchemist Whitehead, fighting against the cruel O’Neil, played by Michael Smiley in a role that allows him to revel as a dark hearted Irishman.
At the same time there are points at which it feels as though this absurdism envelops the film. In one particularly confusing moment the hallucinogenics take over the camera and the scene collapses into a kaleidoscope of shifting images and visions while a dull buzzing noise drones over the top. It’s all just a little much, serving to confuse what is a fun and engaging film by giving into a desire for overt weirdness that never really leads us anywhere.
For all its strengths A Field in England feels a bit like a collection of ideas that gradually got stranger as the film progressed. Wheatley has created a genuinely interesting and fun film which has all of the components of a good dark comedy, but those extra flourishes which make the film that bit different just fail to fully capture your attention in the way the strongest parts of the film do. While it stands as an interesting exposition of Wheatley’s talent and ideas it lags behind his other films in veering slightly too much into the leftfield without enough substance to carry us through to the end. It may not be Wheatley’s finest hour, but it hints at a talented director who still has much to offer.
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