The English countryside is rarely as menacing as in the films of director Ben Wheatley. In Kill List, a shift to an isolated woodland setting marks the film’s tipping point into karmic, cultish madness. In Sightseers, the lush green-greys of Yorkshire strike disquieting contrast with the gratuitous carnage of the film’s two murderous protagonist. Wheatley’s films are full of these kinds of aesthetic and tonal juxtapositions: his verite style disrupted by surreal, bloody or sadistically funny punctuation marks. And always the picturesque landscapes, made ominous by the threat of impending violence. A Field in England may sound like the world’s blandest nature documentary, but admirers of Wheatley’s oeuvre should know better. At the same time, even they cannot imagine the insanity that awaits those who journey with the director on his latest trip into the countryside.
The film’s premise, like its title, is deceptively simple. In the midst of an (unseen) battle during the 17th century English Civil War, a cowardly alchemist’s assistant named Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) takes refuge behind a hedgerow. There, he meets three soldiers – the embittered Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), the amiable but idiotic Friend (Richard Glover) and the smooth-talking Cutler (Ryan Pope), who convinces the group to abandon the bloodshed and visit an ale house several fields over. Their journey goes awry, however, when they encounter Irish alchemist O’Neill (Michael Smiley), who forces the group to eat hallucinogenic mushrooms and dig for a treasure he believes is buried in the field.
Despite its period setting and distinctive black and white photography, Field contains much of the same DNA as Wheatley’s previous films, in which comedy and brutality so jarringly and effectively intersect. The script, by his wife and frequent co-collaborator Amy Jump, is sharply written. Her era-specific prose are peppered with ribaldry and memorable turns of phrase (a sexually transmitted infection is referred to as having been “brought on by too much venereal sport”, while the craven Whitehead is at one point disparaged as a “homunculus.”) Shearsmith is amusingly pathetic as the deserter forced to find his courage, while Glover’s dopey delivery makes the foolish Friend endearing.
Yet just as the ethereal greys of Laurie Roses’ cinematography are sundered by deep, unforgiving blacks, so too is the picture’s humour enveloped by otherworldly horror. Convinced that his learned prisoner holds the key to finding the treasure, O’Neill summons Whitehead into his tent. The visual that follows, although not graphically violent, is bloodcurdling beyond description. As twisted as his sense of humour may be, Wheatley’s primary talent lies is in the marriage of sight and sound, crafting atmosphere of the most unsettling kind. There’s an eerie beauty to the film’s imagery, as if the natural world has been leeched of that which makes it natural. Artificial clangs and groans in the soundtrack enhance the supernatural foreboding, suggesting the very fabric of the film could collapse inwards at any moment.
And then suddenly, spectacularly, it does. As the story reaches an anguished kind of climax, so too does Wheatley go full Kubrick, abandoning narrative entirely for a sequence of full-blown psychotropic madness. A Field in England is definitely his most audacious and experimental piece to date. At the same time, it’s also his most cinematic. One cannot imagine it having nearly the same effect on VOD as it does in a theatre. Immersion is essential. The film requires a darkness to match it own.