A Field In England - TV Review

'the same adoration for British culture; the same dark humour; the same fascination for the potentially banal; and the same propensity to slip into the realm of the surreal'

If, like me, the only other film you’ve seen from Ben Wheatley is 2012’s Sightseers, the director’s ode to British caravan holidays with a thick blackly comedic streak straight down the middle, then A Field In England on paper may seem like a complete departure from that film in terms of genre, focus and narrative. But the further you get into the director’s latest work, the more the similarities become apparent: A Field In England shares the same adoration for British culture; the same dark humour; the same fascination for the potentially banal; and the same propensity to slip into the realm of the surreal - just through a considerably different lens and, unfortunately, in a less satisfying balance.

Wheatley’s story begins in media res as the cowardly Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) flees from a battle during the English Civil War. Except in many ways, this isn’t truly in media res, as it takes a good half an hour to get to the "res" at all. Whitehead joins up with fellow deserters Cutler (Ryan Pope), Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and Friend (Richard Glover), but other than watch the four men traipse around deserted English countryside exchanging small talk, Wheatley does little to make his opening act particularly engaging.

The arrival of O’Neill (Michael Smiley) thankfully galvanises the narrative into more interesting territory, as well as introducing some of the more surreal elements of the story. But whilst the film might become more engaging, what’s actually happening becomes less and less clear. Wheatley seems determined to make his film at least partially unintelligible from the second act onwards, never making it entirely clear whether the surreal elements of A Field In England are hallucinogenic, supernatural or a combination of both. Either way, his film ventures further and further into the artsy and the abstract, at times with courageous success, at others disappointing amateurishness. There’s no explanation, for example, as to why the characters at several points are seen positioned as a still image - the kind of thing you might see a GCSE Drama group do at the start of their course - and you get the feeling Wheatley probably doesn’t actually have one to give, other than to be obstinately different.

Visually, Wheatley’s film never disappoints. Choosing to shoot his entire film in black and white works wonders with the time period and scenery, making many scenes feel like anachronistic photographs or incredibly fine ink sketches, as well as providing that element of separation from reality which A Field In England consistently, if not always subtly, strives to achieve.

The casting feels just as strong as in Sightseers, with the director again showing his skill in drawing out pitch-perfect performances from small groups of highly talented actors. Whilst nobody puts a foot wrong here, Smiley in particular shows himself to be an actor of transformative skill and immense power; Shearsmith also deserves credit for his comprehensively excellent turn, proving him once again to be one of the most criminally under-appreciated British acting talents of the last fifteen years - a fact I will tell anyone who will listen as often as I can for as long as I need to.

A Field In England ends up as a mishmash of its successful performances and cinematography and its less satisfying structure and narrative. There are undercurrents of religion, mortality and man’s capacity for change, but none are tied up especially satisfyingly as the film reaches its final moments. By the end, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to say exactly what A Field In England is about or what Wheatley wants you to take from it. And whilst you probably won’t mind all that much thanks to the strong cast and striking visuals, you’ll almost certainly wish the director had taken a slightly quicker, more focused and more intelligible route overall.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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