Ben Wheatley revisited: A Field in England (2013)

A Field In England
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Our revisiting of the work of Ben Wheatley arrives at one of his very best films – and most divisive: it’s A Field In England.

One of the key factors for Ben Wheatley in developing a film is the location. He will often find a specific place and construct a narrative and character arcs around the exploration of that place. A Field in England is his keenest example of that to date.

It was clear in Down Terrace, set in one dowdy London terraced house in the main. Kill List concludes with the woods, the forest, as a key visual space, as indeed will In the Earth. Sightseers freewheels but allows Wheatley to explore the broader map of open, country Britain. High-Rise and Free Fire both too have directly observed spaces in which the drama takes place, be it a concrete tower block or grungy warehouse. Wheatley believes in the specificity of his setting as a mechanism to explore the ideas and themes in the screenplays he works from.

A Field in England was born from Wheatley looking out at fields while on train journey commutes and wondering how easy, or difficult, it might be to craft a movie inside a contained yet open, outdoor pastoral setting, where characters struggle to traverse a great distance. He wanted to understand how he could maintain impetus with such restraints. Working from a script by producing partner Amy Jump, he manages this feat with A Field in England, which remains by far his most surrealistic and visually remarkable picture to date, despite being filmed in black and white with, outside of his first film, the most restrained of settings.

A Field In England

If history was a key aspect to Sightseers, in framing the murderous journey of its leads around places of ancient interest, and to Kill List in the meeting of the mundane and arcane, then A Field in England continues his ‘mystic Albion’ persuasion by moving deliberately into that strange, unknowable past. Set during the English Civil War of the mid-17th century, what Wheatley has described as one of the pivot points for English society alongside the later Industrial Revolution, he focuses on yet another group of outsiders – deserting soldiers including Reese Shearsmith’s peevish Whitehead and future Wheatley-regular Peter Ferdinando’s coarse Jacob – who fleeing their duty are captured by Michael Smiley’s strange and powerful alchemist O’Neil, subsequently enlisted in his search for a treasure buried within the titular field:

Wheatley describes his process in developing the idea:

It had always been in the back of my head to make something about the Civil War. It just seemed like such an interesting period because it’s the beginning of the Western world. They’d got rid of a king and parliament’s powers were increased and magic was turning into science. It’s a very messy period. But the amount of thought going on in the country at that point – everybody radicalised and marching and starving and not knowing what’s going on – was fantastic.

Wheatley’s casting of Shearsmith, perhaps at this point the most well-known actor he had ever employed, was partly out of hero worship, having loved The League of Gentlemen TV series on which Shearsmith made his name writing and playing an assortment of grotesques; a show itself which would subscribe to the same fascination in exploring the deep-seated, darkly comedic weirdness of British society. Indeed, Shearsmith had previously dabbled in that show’s film version, The League of Gentleman’s Apocalypse in 2005, with a similar historical era, fusing old England with a Lovecraftian evil. You can see how he might make sense for a Wheatley project, and indeed he too becomes a semi-regular from now on, landing another key role in the next ‘mystic Albion’ exploration some years later, In the Earth.

Here, Whitehead is tethered to an arcane world rippling beneath Cromwellian England, the assistant to a different alchemist and from a learned world as opposed to the gruff, uncouth Jacob and witless Friend (Richard Glover), who end up saving his life and he is forced to travel with. Jacob just wants to get back to London while Friend is obsessed with reaching a nearby ‘ale house’ where he believes he will find warmth and succour. Whitehead is more of an intellectual and Jump’s script accentuates this on numerous occasions, highlighting the distinction between classes during one of the most tumultuous periods in English history. O’Neil is evocative of the kind of extremist, the kind of Cromwellian magician, who was able to emerge in the regicide period and hold considerable sway among the minds of the largely uneducated peasant classes.

Wheatley seems consistently interested in class across his films. Jay in Kill List is very much the pawn of rich, upper class paymasters (who are ultimately behind the cult at the climax). Chris and Tina in Sightseers are both frustrated by the middle-classes they aspire to (Chris in particular) but lack the intellectual capacity to reach. A Field in England is suggesting that Cromwell’s brief England was a world that turned class distinctions topsy turvy; that in the violent rejection of monarchy, English life was able to open its mind to new and game changing possibilities. The mushroom field that forms the core of O’Neil’s treasure strike me as a potent metaphor of that, with Whitehead – someone who begins emerging from that higher class – finding common cause and brotherhood with the serfs through this transformative experience. It feels, ultimately, a movie about unlikely friendship.

A Field In England

Comparisons, in part due to the Civil War setting, have been made with Michael Reeves’ 1968 classic Witchfinder General, but Wheatley considers films such as Winstanley or Peter Watkins’ Culloden as closer reference points:

I think the thing that maybe carries through is the cowboy-ness of it. Witchfinder… is basically a Western. But we found that that snuck up on us. It wasn’t planned. Once we saw the actors lurching about in the hats with the guns we realised that these characters would have been the same guys that would have had to run off to America to escape persecution. I can’t deny that there are references in the movies, but it’s not like I put it in there to see if people can spot it. It’s more that it just comes out in the general wash. Then you see it in the edit and you think “ah…”

The connection between this and the American Old West is a fascinating one, with Wheatley keen to draw lines between historical touchstones in Western civilisation but also his own movies. He believes Kill List’s occult final act is, even obliquely, born of the events in A Field in England, and the experience Whitehead and the others have in the field with O’Neil and eating the ‘magic’ mushrooms. That, too, is a fascinating way to approach his lexicon to date, and as a means of placing A Field in England within his canon.

Truly, the way Wheatley portrays the hallucination sequences of the final act is remarkable. I don’t recall seeing what he pulls off visually in any preceding film. The use of black and white, stripping away any colourful pretext of this largely unexplored era of English history on film, just adds to the strangeness of sequences such as the men pulling the rope – or being pulled – which delivers O’Neil from his stasis, or Whitehead’s furious rush of images within his ‘trip’, including ferocious wind effects, orbiting black holes (very much recalling the Monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) and O’Neil transforming and opening like a chrysalis before his eyes. It looks stunning, with powerful and immersive sound design to boot. It is the most surrealist and visually striking sequence in any Wheatley film to date. He discusses some of the inspirations:

We read about the magic men going about blowing ground-up mushroom dust into people’s faces and people having experiences. That was really interesting. And we read about mushroom circles and how they were considered to be portals to fairy worlds and how if you went through one it was very difficult to escape. How time moves at different speeds either side of the mushroom circle and that you need four men and a rope to pull you out…

Come the climax, as Whitehead’s experience in the field sees him face O’Neil’s true, patrician nature, the power of his experience sees him stand up to the aforementioned, almost Establishmemt power the alchemist represents. O’Neil tells him he can’t escape the field: “Then I shall become it! I shall consume all the ill fortune which you are set to unleash. I shall chew up all the selfish scheming and ill intentions that men like you force upon men like me, and bury it in the stomach of this place!” Wheatley and Jump’s message feels clear to me – A Field in England is an expression of personal Revolution, in the framework of Cromwell’s macro one for the entire nation.

All this is not to say that A Field in England lacks numerous Wheatley trademarks. It is, thanks to Jump’s script, often very funny. Traditional in terms of speech, appropriate to the era, but filled with witty lines and turns, or sequences such as Whitehead examining Jacob’s private parts and listing all of the venerial diseases he has gathered over time. Outside of the visuals – including the unique and stage-like tableau that allow Wheatley to present each act – there is much to enjoy in the dialogue and performances, especially given such a small cast. It is one of Wheatley’s least easily accessible films – even he wasn’t entirely sure what Jump’s script was about as he was filming it – but there is a strident uniqueness about the movie that sets it apart from mere historical tale, black comedy or occult slice of arcane cinema. It is all of those things within a strange brew.

Wheatley could not have gone deeper into such a surrealist avenue after A Field in England, but he does with his next film choose as striking a location, and a deliberate satire of the English class system as he can muster. It leads to the best film he has yet made.

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