In his own introduction to the film, director Ben Wheatley describes A Field in England as “pretty fucking mental”. For all the right reasons, that’s exactly what it is.
Some of his previous work, such as Sightseers and Kill List, signal that you’re not going to see an ordinary film – in terms of plot execution and camera work – and A Field in England, now playing at Cornerhouse, overtakes both in quality.
By my reckoning, films about hallucinogenic drug consumption in the English Civil War consist of a shortlist of one. This is where we find ourselves when cowardly Whitehead – played brilliantly by Reece Shearsmith – seeks to escape a military skirmish and his horrible master, Trower. He encounters another couple of military absconders in the form of Jacob and Friend and they’re taken under the wing of the friendly Cutler and go in search of that most British of boltholes, the pub.
Instead, they find themselves in a field full of magic mushrooms and fall quickly under the sway of the mysterious O’Neill.
The cast is only six strong and each actor shoulders his load impressively. Wheatley favourite, Michael Smiley, simmers malevolently throughout, dredging up long-forgotten nightmares that I had after watching Vincent Price’s turn in Witchfinder General. Peter Ferdinando as Jacob, and Richard Glover as Friend, provide elements of light relief throughout, delivering dark comedy brilliantly. Ryan Pope plays the hideous Cutler like a 17th century reprisal of one his more famous roles as Psycho Paul, the drugs dealer in Ideal. Julian Barratt clearly enjoys hamming it up for his small role as Trower.
But Shearsmith steals the show with his magnetic on-screen presence as Whitehead. Fans of The League of Gentlemen will detect elements of some of his characters from the series, and for this film he could win that sought-after award of ‘Most Horrific and Riveting Emergence from a Tent 2013’.
As each scene passed, I became more certain that this was going to be a definite audience-splitter and subsequent reviews in the broadsheets have reflected this. Filmed entirely in black and white – and deliberately low on plot – there are those who will have found the film perplexing. It’s the director’s intention that we’re really not sure if we’re watching events, character hallucinations, or combinations of both. I’ve never taken magic mushrooms and, based on what they do to Whitehead, Jacob and Friend, have no immediate plans to change this. The tripping scenes, taking advantage of fast-cutting and strobing, are utterly transfixing.
It’s one of those films that I’m going to have to watch several times before I really decide what I think of it. I know that I loved it, but I can’t completely articulate why. Hats off to Wheatley for creating such a unique piece of work. I think that people will be discussing it for years.
Review by Charlie Bell
Where: Cornerhouse, Oxford Road, Manchester