TIFF13: A Field in England (2013)

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A man crawls and squirms his way through tangled bushes into a field. The man, Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), a bookish alchemist-astrologer, is fleeing the smoky, noisy skirmish (part of the English Civil War) on the other side. He soon encounters two other deserters, and then a third. All four set out together for an alehouse across the field and over the hill. After stopping to eat some mushroom stew (the mushrooms picked fresh from the field), they pull a rope until a fifth man appears, O’Neil (Michael Smiley), a master of the occult who intends to use Whitehead to find treasure buried somewhere in the field. Then things start to get crazy. This intriguing, experimental film from British indie hotshot director Ben Wheatley is far trippier and more unsettling than the phrases “seventeenth-century-set” and “black-and-white” might suggest. Some reviewers have mentioned the apparent influence of British regional horror, like The Wicker Man, and certainly the eerie folk music (sung directly at the camera by Richard Glover) calls that classic film to mind. The stripped-down, simple nature of the story also recalls The Canterbury Tales, particularly The Pardoner’s Tale with its three revelers looking for Death and finding it beneath a tree. What Wheatley’s characters find in the field is more psychedelic but equally sinister.

The use of tableaux vivant (living pictures), where the characters stand still holding particular postures in order to point towards some intangible quality in the scene, are one of the film’s many striking visual features. The black and white cinematography focuses our attention on textures—of faces, mushrooms, clouds, grasses—and on characters. Two thirds of the way through, the film takes a turn and charges into insanity; the kaleidoscopic meltdown is as riveting as it is difficult to watch. The initial warning about strobe effects is no joke.

As you can tell, the film is difficult to describe on paper, but seems ideally suited for fiery debate over pints after you leave the theatre, or languid discussion in a hot tub well after midnight. My 28-year-old self likes how Wheatley captures the potential for insanity in the chaotic Civil War era, as well as the strange blend of materialism (e.g. hallucinogenic mushrooms) and magic (e.g. making a man visible by pulling a rope) unique to the seventeenth century, a period equally fascinated by alchemy and the new philosophy. My teenaged self would surely have sought out this film for viewing in the wee hours during one of our movie marathons. I know I sound somewhat rambling and un-analytical, but this is the kind of movie that defies conventional categories as it conjures the feeling of specific experiences in its creation of a new cinematic one. I heartily recommend the film for some, but not for all.

7 out of 10

A Field in England (UK, 2013)

Directed by Ben Wheatley; written by Amy Jump; starring Michael Smiley, Reece Shearsmith, Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, and Ryan Pope.

A Field in England played on September 13 and 14 during the Toronto International Film Festivalas part of the Wavelengths program.