Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013) is a British historical (although revisionist) thriller shot entirely in black-and-white and set during the mid-17th century English Civil War. The film is a gumbo concoction odyssey that breaks free of the historical thriller genre through the use of experimental film techniques: mixing humour, horror and hallucination, with a dissonant kaleidoscopic audio score—an homage to 60s psychedelia. Having seen Sightseers (2012) last year at TIFF, and Kill List (2011) before, seeing A Field in England at TIFF this year I was expecting Wheatley’s usual brand of gruesome violence through fairly straightforward storytelling. A Field in England, based on a screenplay by Wheatley’s wife, Amy Jump, defied most of these expectations, sans the gruesome violence and typical Wheatley noir-humour. Before the screening, Wheatley warned us of the experimental film trip we were embarking on, disclaiming that there would be gratuitous violence, some very long shots, and a penis.
There were all of those things and more. The plot (or anti-plot) of the film places five men together in a field—the film is shot in a single outdoor location—through the alchemy of circumstance. Taking place in 1648, the film tells of a group of deserters who left the battlefront and end up together in an overgrown field. Whitehead, the alchemist’s assistant, escapes his cruel commander, and together with the deserters, Cutler Jacob and Friend, they go in search of a nearby tavern. Along the way they are taken hostage by the imposing O’Neil who forces the other men to escort him on his peculiar search for buried treasure. After the men unknowingly banquet on magic mushrooms picked in the field they helix into a psychedelic nightmare of delusion that consumes the rest of the tale.
Similar to Wheatley’s other films is his use of the English countryside as his canvas. In the talkback after the screening, Wheatley described how his other films have a lineage beginning with the English Civil War. Different from other Wheatley films is the single location setting, the particularly long shots, and the overall cinematographic mushroom-trip. The drug-induced experience is achieved through the texture of the black-and-white images with facial close-ups and sharpened eyes, strobe effects, mirrored images, music video-like slow-motion shots, custom lenses fitted to the camera, and a clever use of Tableaux vivants (living stills, like paintings). In the talkback, Wheatley emphasized his desire to use pre-film techniques to set the period, inspired by Tableaux vivants, paintings, pamphlets, and woodcuttings. The sound was every bit as experimental as the cinematography, crafted using diegetic and non-diegetic sound, and warped folk instrumentation to once again emulate the experience of being on drugs.
Hardly a film for mainstream audiences, the challenge is to give yourself over to the mind-altering monochrome nightmare and, as O’Neil says, “open up and let the devil in.” A Field in England is a visceral experience, and one that will likely poorly translate onto the small screen. It is an impressive experimental film with a small budget of £300, 000. Wheatley’s next picture will be the American-made film, Freakshift, a creature film with a $15 million budget. Get your mushrooms while they’re still locally grown in an English field.
*Photo of Ben Wheatley during the talkback at TIFF by Paul Watkins.