A Field in England

John Higgins and Andrew Johnston make the case for and against Ben Wheatley's psychedelic Civil War experiment

Ben Wheatley was doing so well. His debut feature, Down Terrace, was a grisly gem, putting a fresh spin on the British gangster flick. Kill List built on its success, offering a senses-mangling mix of the crime, horror and comedy genres. And Sightseers, a darkly humorous serial killer yarn, was another corker. But with A Field in England, it is a shame to report that this most promising of directors has stumbled.

Before it had even been seen, A Field in England was making headlines for being the first film to be released simultaneously in cinemas, on television, on DVD and as a digital download. I watched it on the big screen, and stuck it out from start to finish. It wasn't easy.

Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me if the viewer figures for last Friday's Channel 4 broadcast dropped off around the 30-minute mark. A Field in England is deliberately obscurist nonsense that would test the patience of even the most pretentious cinephile.

There's a script, but not much in the way of a story. There's quality acting from the likes of Reece Shearsmith and Northern Ireland's own Michael Smiley, but no characters to care about. And for all the mesmerising visuals, there's very little substance.

Here, Wheatley's bursts of graphic gore (notably a devastating leg injury and a facial gunshot wound) are starting to look like more of a gimmick than a narrative necessity. A Field in England is a feast for the eyes, but unlike its creator's previous work, very little of it touches the heart or stimulates the brain.

The screenplay, by Wheatley's regular collaborator (and wife) Amy Jump, concerns a motley crew of English Civil War deserters. A pompous alchemist, Whitehead (Shearsmith), begrudgingly bands together with two lower-class soldiers (Peter Ferdinando and Richard Glover) in pursuit of an oasis-like alehouse.

The trio are soon taken captive by a fourth traveller, Cutler (Ryan Pope), who brings them to his master, the sadistic Irish necromancer O'Neil (Smiley), in order to help him find and dig up some apparently buried treasure. Hallucinogenic drug-taking, torture, boozing, male bonding, philosophising, public urination, pained constipation and impromptu medical diagnoses ensue in the 17th-century English countryside.

What A Field in England is all about, however, is unclear. Are the men in purgatory? Is it all a hallucination? Is the film an allegory for the London riots, the austerity cuts, institutionalised Christianity? If you have to try so hard to find meaning in a film, it might not be worth the effort. It's a bit like forcing yourself to appreciate avant-garde jazz.

Amidst the vagaries, Jump's screenplay does deliver some striking lines. Whitehead's pronouncements on religion and the meaning of life are engaging, as are speeches by Glover's character about hating his wife and fearing his maker. 'I think I've worked out what God is punishing us for,' he says at one point. 'Everything.'

The creeping sense of dread that is a mark of Wheatley's work is present throughout, and the sparse, period soundtrack is chillingly effective. It is also beautifully shot in black-and-white. A torturously extended drug sequence, as an increasingly unhinged Whitehead stuffs his face with magic mushrooms, is already notorious, but in the absence of a coherent plot, it's all just something interesting and unusual to look at.

Unlike Kill List, which is more rewarding with each repeated viewing, there's a sense that A Field in England may have been put together simply to see how much Wheatley could get away with. A Field in England is rubbish, yet has been well received by eager critics. But there is no shame in not 'getting it'.

Still, all great filmmakers have their off-days, and Wheatley has certainly been churning them out. We can only hope that his next directorial effort, the American-funded sci-fi feature Freakshift, is a return to form and not the kind of film that Down Terrace, Kill List and Sightseers were a refreshing alternative to.

It begins with mad, scrabbling disorientation, the camera pushing through a murky fuse, panicked fingers creeping into shot, running through the long grass like spiders. It ends, possibly, with redemption and with a mystifying metaphysical flourish.

That 'possibly' is important, because I’m not entirely sure what I’ve seen during Ben Wheatley’s meditation on psychedelics, the Western and weird old England. What I am certain of is that A Field in England is one of the most interesting pieces of cinema I’ve watched in a very long time. This is not a film that has been focus group finessed. It’s rich, peculiar and all over the place.

Its effects are wonky and strange. The sound-design a free for all, burying the dialogue and capturing howls of wind or the cracking of tree branches underfoot. The camera swoops and gullies. For many of the skirmish sequences the action is unreadable, a black smear accompanied by grunts and whimpers.

But then there are figures shot through spider’s webs, or framed by a forbidding foreground where all is calm. Indeed, the film is peppered with odd tableaux vivant’s – the actors posing in exaggerated postures as though waiting for Caravaggio to pitch up and knock out a canvas.

This is simultaneously Wheatley’s most beautiful film to date and his ugliest, and for a film set against the backdrop of the rolling green hills of Surrey (here depicted in pearlescent shades of silver) it has an oddly claustrophobic feel.

The world has been has been reduced to a field in England: a square sod of earth with a pub forever tantalisingly just out of reach. In our introduction to Belfast-born actor Michael Smiley’s O’Neil, it takes four strong men to remove him from a fairy circle. But it seems as though none of the characters presented will ever leave this field.

Amy Jump’s script is more self-consciously literary than in any of her previous films and it pays off, planting quips aplenty between the screams of terror. And there are plenty of those. Reece Shearsmith’s Whitehead, the cowardly servant of an alchemist, does much screaming, between fervent prayers and ill-conceived attempts at conversation.

His emergence from O’Neill’s tent after some unspeakable torture – walking in slow motion, a ghastly rictus grin on his face – is one of the most indelible things I’ve seen in all of cinema. It is genuinely frightening.

Much has been made of the mushroom-induced tripping scenes, and these again are quite extraordinary, stark and silhouette precise, a succession of kinetic fast cuts coming as a conjurors’ magic match between Whitehead and O’Neill, and resembling the head-melting experimentation of Nic Roeg’s Performance.

A Field in England is a strange film, there's no doubt about it. Wheatley refuses to do what he should do. Four films into his cinematic career and he makes a low budget, black and white Western set during the English Civil War that features myth, mysticism and magic mushrooms. I can only applaud this.

It won’t please everyone. There is little in the way of exposition. The viewer is literally dumped into an English field with some fairly unpleasant bearded men. But it is a darkly funny, often terrifying sensorial explosion bursting with ideas. A Field in England may be the most exciting film I’ve seen this year.

A Field in England runs in Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast until July 11.