A Field In England
Self proclaimed coward and alchemist’s assistant Whitehead cowers in a field. A battle rages just over the hedgerows, the God of War churns up dirt and sound. The English Civil War in “A Field In England” is captured in startling black and white, sometimes Neorealist massacre, at others Nouvelle Vague period drama, and often a psychedelic Theatre of Cruelty
The field grows vast, as the fog of war is lost over the horizon. Serene and unsettling this slice of green and pleasant land seems unsullied by the English assault on God, the challenge to the divine right of kings. Still the earth seems sentient, brooding, and ready to spew forth, righteous damnation on the blasphemous heretics or hell borne fury on the weak of soul. Either way Ben Wheatley’s fourth directorial effort infects his audience with a terrible sense of unease.
“Whilst we live fear of hell we have it” recounts Whitehead. Is he about to reject his faith and place his trust in the pseudo-science of his unseen master? Two ruffians Cutler and Jacob join him obsessed with ale and women. Friend a softer soul, fleshy and malleable takes an interest in the educated Whitehead, “You think about a thing before you touch it.” “Is that unusual?” questions Whitehead. “It is in Essex” deadpans friend.
Whitehead’s prissy curiosity just outweighs his fears and he is in fact on a mission to find the enigmatic O’Neil. Here the camera is lucid refusing to film reality but instead revealing a narrative purgatory, one that never illuminates-but rather suggests the dark arts, the lens replaced by the obsidian orb of a scrying mirror. Cutler puts the motley crew to work pulling a rope that has seemingly been displaced from a galley. Hauled into existence through the dirt is O’Neil.
In the film’s most horrific moment Whitehead is lured into a tent by O’Neil and kissed by darkness. His screams are worse than Quint’s fingernails clawing that blackboard in “Jaws.” Wheatley cloaks his torment, we can only guess at what would break a man so completely. What emerges from the tent is truly disturbing; Whitehead’s twisted countenance leers in slow motion utterly base and depraved as he shambles for eternity, whispers of Aguirre Wrath of God” echo from the screen.
“A Field In England’s” crowning glory is the wild hallucinogenic sequence; Polanski, Roeg, Cammell, Hardy and old computer generated rave videos are all referenced as the film literally collapses in on itself, the audience struggling to remain focused on the mirror images racing right before their eyes. Sound becomes detached, random, something to be caught or plucked out of the air.
Alongside his own “Kill List” Ben Wheatley has created something remarkable, intangible. His ability to deliver the uncanny is frightening. Is he the successor to David Lynch who can also make the most mundane inanimate objects seem the most terrifying things in the world? Art house “Solomon Kane” or acidic “Witchfinder General” “A Field In England” could even be a Chris Morris film about Glastonbury. Now there’s a thought.