Teatime over lads, back on your heads…after a brief time out to take in the antics of the frivolous Mr Partridge, it’s heads down and straight back into the realm of the strange and the difficult. And surely there won’t be a British film released in arthouse cinemas this year that’ll be on the surface stranger and more difficult than Ben Wheatley’s fourth film A Field In England? This one’s notable straight away for the unusual way it’s been unleashed on the world: on the same day that it opened in theatres it was also released on DVD, blu-ray and on-demand services and was even given a free-to-air screening on TV courtesy of Film 4. This is a bold marketing strategy to be sure but could also be interpreted as the film’s distributor hedging its bets with a thorny product (“quick, flog ’em the DVD before they’ve had a chance to see the thing!”) – Field ticks an awful lot of the boxes that qualify a film as a hard sell, being low-budget, grimy, bleak, violent, kind of druggy and presented in black and white to boot. It’s also a period piece, which isn’t necessarily a turn-off, but it probably doesn’t help that there are no female characters and that the whole thing takes place in one field (at least nobody can be accused of false advertising in that respect). Clearly, as anyone who’s read my ramblings about Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr will understand, this is the kind of film that sails instantly to the top of my much-watch list.
Personally I didn’t bother watching the TV showing as my signal reception on Film 4 is so dodgy, and I couldn’t make it to any of the few showings at my local picturehouse, but I did manage to borrow a blu-ray (thanks Alan!) and I was in the end glad that I waited to see it in a high definition format. This is actually a highly accomplished piece of work – difficult and strange to be sure, but also disciplined, literate, funny and affecting. It concerns an ill-matched set of deserters from a chaotic skirmish during the Civil War who find themselves forming an uneasy alliance for the purposes of survival and finding a good alehouse. One of them, Reece Shearsmith’s Whitehead, is an astrologer who’s been charged with locating and bringing to justice the maverick O’Neil (a highly sinister turn by Michael Smiley), who has stolen valuable papers relating to alchemical practices from Whitehead’s master – when the group eventually encounter O’Neil however he turns out to have very different plans and some disturbing psychological manipulation, mushroom assisted mental dislocation and much much worse ensue.
The impression I’d formed of the film based on descriptions and reviews was that it was a sludgy, hand-held, semi-improvised, impressionistic sort of thing which only goes to show I need to work on my speed-reading: A Field In England is stunning, both visually (the high contrast widescreen cinematography is just beautiful) and in terms of its spare, subtly-layered soundtrack. It’s also, despite some of the baffling and unsettling mayhem that comes more and more to the fore as the film proceeds, a carefully written and structured piece of work that has the feeling of a proper stage play about it, what with its small cast and single location. Characters develop, form bonds, make choices and reap consequences as they should in any intelligently worked out drama, and even if some of the specifics about what’s going on remain opaque the film never devolves into random weirdness, even during the tour-de-force hallucination sequence which features the fastest cutting between shots I can ever remember seeing (seriously: this is like heavy duty strobing). It seems to make emotional sense, even if you’d struggle to explain all the how and whys. And despite reminding me a bit of quite a lot of things (the folk horror of Blood On Satan’s Claw, the cruelty of Witch Finder General, and in its beautifully austere and uncluttered look, the 1960s films of Ingmar Bergman) it feels in many ways like a genuine original.
So, A Field In England. Wouldn’t want to live there, but surprisingly interesting to visit.