Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope, Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Julian Barratt
Watch online: iTunes / Film4OD / Virgin Movies on-Demand
“While we live in fear of hell, we have it.”
Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England is released in cinemas this Friday. On the same day, it will also be available on DVD, VOD and Blu-ray and shown on Film4 on the telly. Amazingly, its distribution is the least crazy thing about it.
We follow four men who flee the front line of the Civil War, heading into the grass to get a break from the carnage. But where they hope to spy an inn, they instead dig up O’Neill (Smiley – after this and Kill List, surely the world’s least aptly-named actor), an alchemist with far fouler plans. There is treasure buried in this field, he tells them, with a sinister stare. Then hands them a shovel.
It means bad news for Whitehead (Shearsmith), a Christian fellow who’s crossed books with O’Neil before – and almost nothing at all to group’s simple soldier from Essex (Pope). “You’re the kind of man who thinks about things before you touch them,” the delightfully down-to-earth one says to Whitehead. Together, their odd couple banter undercuts the growing sense of unease.
That sense of humour is what stands out the most in Ben Wheatley’s latest film – even more than the descent into brain-melting acid trip. Where Kill List and Sightseers suffered slightly from a disjointed ending or uneven tone, Amy Jump’s script is scarily coherent, even when it makes no sense: darkness and laughs are in perfect balance, helped by the foul-mouthed Peter Ferdinando, as impromptu penis inspections and men crapping in bushes make way for planet-swallowing suns and religious confrontations.
Class, theology, cocks, fields. On its surface it may look not of this world (thanks to Laurie Rose’s gorgeous monochrome cinematography), but A Field in England might be the most British thing we’ve seen since Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony. If Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony force-fed you mushrooms and turned you into a gibbering wreck.
Oh yes, you will gibber. That quaint pastoral atmosphere eventually escalates into a psychedelic barrage of mirrored images, freeze frames and unsettling sound design. But just as the going gets weird, Reece Shearsmith gets going: swapping his books for balls, Whitehead grows from tied-up plaything to heroic protagonist, discarding that fear of hell in one of the best roles of the grinning League of Gentlemen star’s career – his facial expressions alone will give you nightmares.
Whitehead’s face-off against Smiley’s intimidating Faust takes us away from the rural terror of The Wicker Man or period costumes of Witchfinder General into a black and white Western: a shootout of faith, a fistful of horrors, that guns down rationality with a brash confidence.
“I think I’ve worked out what God is punishing us for,” croaks Pope halfway through. “Everything.”
Is this purgatory? A muddier English equivalent of Bruges? Are we inside Whitehead’s mind? Is this hell? In a way, it doesn’t really matter. Once you’ve pieced your mind back together, Wheatley’s film will haunt you regardless. A trek through The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of British identity, A Field in England is brilliantly terrifying – and terrifyingly brilliant.
“Open up and let the devil in!” cries Smiley. It’s sound advice.
A Field in England is available on DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, in cinemas and on TV on Friday 5th July. You have no excuse not to see it.