A Field in England, the fourth feature film from british director Ben Wheatley, is a visceral experience; a psychedelic period drama that utterly immerses its audience.
Every Ben Wheatley film is a reaction to the previous one: debuting with crime comedy Down Terrace (2009), he followed with disturbing horror Kill List (2011), and most recently released the gruesome yet hilarious Sightseers (2012). Although the dark psychology of A Field in England is absolutely characteristic of Wheatley’s work, its art-house style is markedly different from any of his previous works, with the director describing his actions as “splitting Kill List down the middle, taking the art-house style and accentuating it.”
Released simultaneously on DVD, freeview, VOD and in cinemas nationwide on 5 July, A Field in England will immediately bring art-house to the masses. The move was orchestrated by Film4, Picturehouse Entertainment, 4DVD and Film4, as well as being supported by BFI Distribution Fund, New Models, which aims to nurture ambitious releases. A digital masterclass detailing the making of the film will also launch in the summer, allowing audiences to engage with every aspect of Wheatley’s 17th century thriller.
This innovation in film distribution offers Wheatley’s broad following the chance to see his work whenever and wherever they want; previously his films have been incredibly well received by both audiences and the press, but have been disadvantaged by niche release plans – Kill List, for example, was initially only available in 30 cinemas, yet achieved one million viewings once it aired on television. The multi-platform release of A Field in England demonstrates a move away from the current model of screening conventional blockbusters, and for Wheatley harks back to the midnight screenings of the 1970s, which provided the opportunity to see non-mainstream films for months on end. Film has become something that cinema-goers have to work into their schedules, and Wheatley is clear to assert that this release model will instead “give audiences the chance to see the film on their own terms,” telling them, “if you want to have a look at it, you can, and if you don’t want to pay for it then that’s fine by us. Of course it’s best to view films with an audience and surround sound, but if you can’t get to a cinema then you can still watch it at home.”
Wheatley is a director who clearly identifies with his audience and his genre; he doesn’t make films simply intended to appeal to the masses, but works with writer Amy Jump and their team to make films that they want to see themselves. The team is constantly innovating, with every film a slightly different recipe, yet always seasoned with the same mix of wild carnage, gritty humour and blatant honesty about the human condition. Set on developing their most challenging cinematic experiment yet, and concerned that the debts and ties caused by heavy outside funding would jeopardise artistic freedom, the team intentionally kept A Field in England low-budget so that they could make the bizarre “trip” they had envisaged – no apologies and no holding back.
A Field in England was born out of both Wheatley’s ongoing ambition to work inventively with editing, structure and drama, as a pioneering filmmaker, but also a specific fascination with 17th century England. He says: “The English Civil War and Industrial Revolution are key moments in English history which caused a sea-change for Western Europe, yet it’s a period that not many films have been made about. I liked the idea that this was a time when the whole population was radicalised, and while several ideas were flying about the country, we only know about the ideas of the victors – even though there would have been a lot of other thoughts that were never recorded. When researching the period we found a great deal of information about the ruling classes – what generals wore for example – but very little about your ordinary man walking down the street.”
Each of the small group of deserters who, with the wily alchemist O’Neil, make up the cast of A Field in England is initially the epitome of “your ordinary man”; however as the narrative develops into an intense power struggle, the experience of Wheatley’s characters becomes anything but ordinary. Fleeing the battlefields of the English Civil War, four soldiers and a coward climb through a gorse hedge into a grassy field, however rather than discovering the “belly full of ale” they crave, they encounter an unending conflict far more horrific than anything on the frontline. The psychedelic trip and emotional tug-of-war that emerges is charged further by the film’s setting.
The emphasis on folklore was only natural for a psychological thriller set in a period where “magic becomes science”, and not only did Wheatley and Jump research classic English mythology, but they became mythologists themselves, incorporating ancient runes, unlimited rebirth and numerous symbolic devices into the film. “What is this hedge? What is the place they are coming into? How are they being resurrected and why?” These are questions that torment the audience throughout, and which remain open-ended to achieve a wholly subjective and varied viewing experience.
The protagonist in many ways is alchemist O’Neil, played by Michael Smiley. Wheatley had worked with all of the actors before – aside from Reece Shearsmith who gives what is possibly the film’s most mesmerising performance as the cowardly astrology apprentice Whitehead. The film’s disturbing events begin with O’Neil and the myth of the mushroom circle: a fairy portal from which a man can only escape if pulled out by four men and a rope. Having fallen into one of these circles, O’Neil orders his assistant Cutler to enlist the four deserters to haul him out. However, with the rope taut and the men weak, they are instead dragged inside of this alternate universe where the laws of time, body and place mean nothing. Bewildered by this magical realm and drugged from mushroom stew, the men are easily coerced into a futile mission to find the alchemist’s unknown “treasure”.
Chaos ensues, and by the end of the 91 minutes it seems that Whitehead has prevailed, discovering the treasure and eating the heart of revealed fraudster O’Neil. However, in a twist of fate, the closing tableau of the film brings the men back together, suggesting that this same series of events may infinitely perpetuate, eventually refining into a cleaner circle of conflict.
Clean is one word that cannot be used to describe this film, however Wheatley is quick to assert: “It’s not just violence – you see characters eating, living, dying – it’s everything really. I didn’t want to shy away from the grotty and messy – they’re alive. It shows a different level of morality; for example, one man examining another man’s genitals becomes a rare moment of tenderness. You would never see a modern character doing this stuff, but these men are raw.”
A Field in England is such an unusual viewing experience due to this absolute authenticity, both visually and also, most noticeably, in its dialogue. Wheatley explains: “In Sci-Fi films, if characters go back in time they’ll discuss what’s going on in detailed terms, which a real character from that period wouldn’t do. We wanted to give the feeling in this movie that you’re actually there, with lots of strange stuff happening around you – odd moralities, religious and magical elements – but none of it is ever explained, so you’re always on the back foot trying to keep up. Many historical references are made in the film, and I enjoy the idea that if you don’t know the history then you just don’t – the film won’t stop to explain it for you.”
Still, this is not to say that viewers have to be experts on 17th century English history to understand the film, because it’s not the actual discourse that communicates the plot, but rather the way that these men react to one another, regardless of the era, setting or character. Wheatley highlights: “We all connect emotionally in the same way.” It’s through the outstanding performances of Smiley, Shearsmith, Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover and Ryan Pope that Jump’s complex scripts of ancient language, which, Wheatley ponders “may have seemed stilted in the hands of other actors;” come to life.
Although unapologetically savage, it is the cast, technical production and location, rather than its gore, that make A Field In England such a powerfully anxiety-inducing experience. Wheatley and Director of Production Laurie Rose took an imaginative approach to shooting – switching between conventional film cameras to those the size of a DSLR, and using handmade lenses crafted from children’s toys to create a constant shift in quality, overlaid with scratches, flares and misting. This inventive camera work, presented in saturated black and white, creates a deeply antiquated feel but is also, conversely, incredibly successful in replicating a psychedelic drug trip, amplified by the extensive use of flashing images, blackouts and kaleidoscopic imagery.
Further contributing to the film’s optical seasickness is its location: the undulating grasses of a vast pasture. Wheatley initially intended to use a forest for the film, however he did so for Kill List, and considering he’s not one to repeat himself, he selected a field just outside of Guildford for the film’s two week shoot – the result of which is surprisingly haunting. The cinematic treatment of this humble setting was heavily influenced by Japanese horror Onibaba (1964), which cultivates an overwhelming claustrophobia within a shallow reed bed. Wheatley comments: “We started thinking about the grass; it’s a seemingly simple space that is actually a very complex ecosystem, so we decided that the field itself would come alive as the characters got further down into it.” This impression is accomplished largely through sound.
The resonant soundtrack of A Field in England may be its most overtly art-house aspect; almost corporeally audible, it envelops the audience, who are never just watching, but feeling and experiencing. Negating the natural sounds of the field, Wheatley “removed much of the birdsong to create a really dead feeling”, and worked with sound designer Martin Pavey and composer Jim Williams to design a soundtrack ridden with surging inner-ear and unnervingly fleshy sounds. He says: “Martin sourced a series of gongs from which we generated a lot of sound – especially the bath water gong that you rub a glockenspiel beater onto for these sonorous, looping noises. He then recorded shot effect sounds – gunfire, catapults, washers – just firing across a mic for these really meaty sounds. I tend to cut the sound and image together, which not many filmmakers do, but it means that Martin can start suggesting and recording sounds much earlier. Cutting simultaneously can be a bit of a brain ache, as you end up with about 100 layers of sound, but for me it’s a better way of working because there are no surprises at the end.”
Cutting the entire film in unison, rather than using sound to fill a void, is an intricately complex process that demonstrates the importance Wheatley invests in each detail. He and his team are constantly pushing their limits to create something unique and outstanding, reaching true historical authenticity through hand-crafted lenses, genius scripting and unconventional cinematography, and despite the film’s greyscale spectrum, achieving an entirely surreal psychedelia through otherworldly picture and sound.
To watch A Field in England is to enter into a bewildering world of mystifying folklore and lurid violence, where the laws of time, morality and mortality are irrelevant. It is also to become a voyeur of human deterioration, overseeing the descent of a mysterious treasure-hunt into an infinitely perpetuating circle of conflict. In Wheatley’s contradictory space of constant death and rebirth, all is either “buried or consumed” so that no man can arise victorious, with the only survivor emerging as the elusive notion of the treasure that exists between men.
The multi-platform release of A Field in England will take place on 5 July. For further information visit www.afieldinengland.com.