In A Field in England, there are four archetypes: the educated coward, the driven leader, the bitter cynic, and the wise, plain-speaking simpleton. Their violent, black-and-white Civil War world — gunfire, bayonets, and explosions amid the long grass of the meadow — becomes pure chaos upon the insertion of O’Neil, a charismatic Irishman who might be the personification of Satan. “Open up, and let the devil in!”
The field of the title buzzes with life. Regular inserts show tiny larvae creeping among the grasses, which wave in gorgeous slow motion. The humans cut a swathe through it, digging and bleeding into it, picking it up and eating it, but the field lives on despite their presence. It’s also my belief, though, that A Field in England is an applicable name for director Ben Wheatley’s cinematic sandbox: a space in film history that he is cultivating completely on his own. His earlier Kill List was the most surprising horror-drama I’ve seen in years, with possible influences as disparate as Clive Barker and Ken Loach, and his latest bears similarities with Eraserhead and Irréversible. I have joined Wheatley’s ever-growing fan following because rather than erecting untouchable monuments to his own genius, he draws us deep into his space and shows us these fresh horrors up close. Even at his most surreal, as he is in A Field in England, I don’t think he ever forgets his audience.
Not that this is an easy watch. Faces are blown off, visual non sequiturs abound, and stroboscopic effects feature prominently. Much of the first half hour or so is a search for detail: who are these people? Where did they come from? And where are they going? Rich and varied aural effects offer few clues. Occasionally, Wheatley breaks the loose narrative for what I would call a ‘live photograph’: the actors posing dramatically, with shivering hands and chests rising and falling, for no obvious reason. But slowly they reveal themselves through sparse dialogue, arguably the film’s strongest element. “Perhaps we should all go back and suffer,” says the simpleton looking back in the direction of the battlefield. “Knowledge is its own payment,” says the educated coward when asked how well his master keeps him. “Shit and thistles,” says the cynic as a description of the field (and possibly as a summation of his life).
A Field in England is bizarre and fragmented enough to be open to many interpretations. Mine is that it’s about power: who has it, why they have it, how it corrupts and evolves and dissolves. The educated coward has lived for a long time under one man’s power; how will he respond to sudden dominance by another master? Can a cynic ever be truly powerful? And in the absence of other personal qualities, how useful is a good leader? O’Neil is the controlling figure of doom that throws everything out of alignment, emitting his own fantastic, unexplained power and bringing everyone over to his side whether they like it or not, but he too is fallible. Absolute power, if it even exists outside of theory, cannot be wielded for long due to its shifting nature.
We sat way up the back of the Paramount for this one, and I joked at the start that it might be appropriate to look into the abyss from afar, rather than up close. We knew more or less what we were in for. It proved to be as nightmarish as expected, so perhaps we were saved from the savage head-trip we might have experienced up close. More pertinently, our distance from the screen meant that I took all my notes in the dark. They are a total mess, scrawled diagonally in fragments across lined pages:
For a film as disorienting as A Field in England, that seems appropriate.