320. A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

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“I think I have worked out what God is punishing us for: everything.”—Friend, A Field in England

“So here’s to the mushroom family
A far-flung friendly clan
For food, for fun, for poison
They are a help to man.”

Gary Snider, “The Wild Mushroom”

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Reece Shearsmith, , Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope

PLOT: The English Civil War rages, and a group of deserters bands together. Through bribes, threats, and hallucinogens, an occultist’s agent induces a scholar, a soldier, and a simpleton to aid him in summoning his master, O’Neal. Once brought on to this plane, O’Neal forces the trio to seek and find a treasure of immeasurable value—under pain of annihilation.

Still from A Field in England (2013)

BACKGROUND:

  • A Field in England was the first major motion picture to be released simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD, video-on-demand, and broadcast television.
  • The film’s budget was a modest £300,000 ($420,000 US) and took only twelve days to shoot.
  • No females appear on screen throughout the film, though the eponymous “field” is voiced (in a manner of speaking) by a woman.
  • On the film’s release, a craft beer was made available to cinema-goers with the film’s informal tagline, “Open Up and Let the Devil In.”
  • A limited (400-count) special edition double-vinyl soundtrack album went on sale accompanying the film’s release. For the true fan, a handful of these soundtracks included a blade of grass purportedly plucked from the titular field.
  • The number “320” suggests a strong bond to the spiritual and occult world.
  • Giles EdwardsStaff Pick for the Certified Weird List.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Seeing as how the film begins with a warning about “flashing images and stroboscopic sequences”, there are any number of images that might qualify (though by their very stroboscopic nature, they may be more of a subconscious kind-of-thing). However, the film’s coupling of sinister madness and unlikely humor is perhaps best exemplified by the shot of five souls romping through the field while in search of the mysterious treasure. (Although an earlier scene with a “giddy” protagonist is impossible to erase from one’s mind.)

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Magic mushroom faerie ring; tableaux “frieze” frames; tent from Hell

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Much like the instrumental meal in the story, the movie’s ingredients all work together toward weird ends—individually they are weird, and together they are greater than the weird sum of their parts. The viewer is presented with a black-and-white period piece with amusing, earthy dialogue and hallucinogens in lieu of sweeping drama and battle scenes. Lightning-fast editing, nebulous exposition, and too many occult nods to count all crash together like an ill planet upon the unsuspecting viewer.


Original U.K. trailer for A Field in England

COMMENTS: We hear a man running breathlessly and see a wild rushing through hedges in first person. A man emerges, obviously a scholar, and nearby there is a crack of gunpowder as a poor soul collapses from the bushes. The scholar begins a furtive prayer as a third man tries to rouse the collapsed fellow before rooting through his possessions. A nobleman on horseback spots the scholar over the divide—and after issuing a string of threats, gets a pike through the back.

This brief, chaotic introduction acts as exposition. The scholar, Whitehead (Reece Sheersmith), is a man of intellect as well as a coward. The second man (Richard Glover) is referred to in the film only as “Friend.” Cutler (Ryan Pope), who looted Friend’s possessions, establishes a rapport with Whitehead, with events only to be interrupted once more by another character literally blasting on to the scene: a soldier named Jacob (Peter Ferdinando). After the mention of an alehouse unexpectedly revitalizes Friend, the gang of four begins its trek through the neighboring field, lured on first by the promise of a slap-up supper before being encouraged by more sinister means.

The narrative’s already loose grounding screeches to a halt when their travels bring them to the film’s first tableau scene. The men are posed around a stake in the ground to which a thick rope is attached. The actors are arranged as in a painting, but this is no freeze frame: after a medium shot showing the entire mise-en-scène, closeups show that the men are, to the best of their ability, standing motionless. And then, as suddenly as it stopped, the narrative resumes. Having drugged one, bribed a second, and strong-armed the third, Cutler has the men pull the rope. Their efforts result in the rope around the stake actually unwinding as each of them steps over the edge of a mushroom ring on the ground. From nowhere, a man materializes in the field at the rope’s end—or perhaps the four have pulled themselves through to him.

The black and white palette gives the action a visual clarity that the narrative lacks. There are ominous visions of the Black Sun, an astrological symbol of tremendous power. While the sky overhead is fair, the varying grays make it into a heartless, amorphous mass looming menacingly above the landscape. There are confused, shaky cuts to be found, but there are more incredible closeups of local flora and micro-fauna. As the film progresses, the field becomes a character in its own right, introduced gradually as we see its denizens— both human and otherwise—viewed through different focal planes. Obviously, the field’s mushrooms are a key ingredient, as their consumption acts both as a catalyst for the summoning of O’Neal as well as for the transformation of Whitehead. When Whitehead’s mind snaps and rebuilds, flash cuts depict his transformation from someone at odds with the world and himself to someone at one with his body and nature; particularly in that field.

Impressively, the movie has a fair amount of humor. In addition to the playful bits of dialogue scattered throughout, Wheatley throws in some sight gags. Shortly after Friend consumes the mushrooms, he stares at his black-and-white environment and remarks, “What beautiful colors!” Later, when O’Neal explains to Whitehead that it is he, O’Neal, who is imprisoning the other, Whitehead whines, “I do not follow…”, and then he immediately hurries to catch up with O’Neal, who has walked on. The biggest smile is reserved for Whitehead, after his nightmarish screams and slow, staggering emergence following an unseen experience inside a tent with O’Neal. Those few minutes, scored by some sinister gothic-baroque-synth tune of unworldliness, would be enough on their own to qualify this movie as weird. Whitehead’s expression after his ordeal remains one of the creepiest things I have ever seen; but it was smiley.

Falling into that woefully underexplored genre of “anti-Epic”, A Field in England covers everything from groundling-level Shakespearean humor to cataclysmic levels of doom, all with drugs and aplomb. The devastating war going on in the background is just a minor distraction to the dark magic unfolding. This unlikely and refreshing blend of historical drama, verbal comedy, and (black-and-white) psychedelic imagery somehow fits perfectly with its complex soundtrack of rushing wind, traditional folk music, and a jagged score. This is an intense, mischievous, weird little film—so go ahead and heed O’Neal. Open up and let the Devil in.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Clearly, Wheatley is bored with the paint-by-numbers approach of his horror contemporaries, but has swung so far in the opposite direction here, the result feels almost amateurishly avant garde at times, guilty of the sort of indulgences one barely tolerates in student films.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (contemporaneous)

“…unapologetically psychedelic in both tone and tempo… a film both Ingmar Bergman and Ken Russell could drool over.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

“…a dizzying head trip of a film, a nutty cocktail of weirdness and surrealism with its protagonists plunging into an inescapable psychological abyss.”–Simon Reynolds, Digital Spy (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Mushrooms, Madness and a Masterclass – The British version of the official site, courtesy of Film, 4; the “masterclass” is a twenty-minute making-of video, supplemented with text and video extras

A Field in England | Drafthouse Films – The trailer and a few stills and links adorn the American distributor’s site

IMDB LINK: A Field in England (2013)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Ben Wheatley, director of A Field in England – interview – Interview with the director for List Films

Pulling The Veil From The Mysteries: Ben Wheatley Talks A Field In England – Interview with The Quietus

Mark Kermode reviews A Field in England – The British critic reviews the film for his radio program (YouTube)

I Watched A FIELD IN ENGLAND On Mushrooms – birth. movies. death.’s Britt Hayes describes the title experience

Ben Wheatley ‘overwhelmed’ with reaction to A Field In England – BBC article on the film’s experimental release strategy

LIST CANDIDATE: A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)‘s original review of A Field in England film for this site

HOME VIDEO INFO: A Field in England is available on DVD or Blu-ray (buy), with a bonus digital copy offered in either format. A lot of care went into the release. All the subtle sounds and crisp, precise images are captured in the audio and video transfers—which, with such a feast for the eyes (and ears), is a necessity. The requisite commentary features not just the director and producer, but also—crucially—the film’s sound editor. There are bunches of behind-the-scenes shorts, a 16-page booklet, and a digital download option. My favorite “feature”, though, is the reversible cover sleeve for the disc’s snap-case. The default image is nice enough, but the menacingly psychedelic alternative cover makes for an impressive display on a shelf.

For those more inclined toward the metaphysical (or just wanting for shelf space), A Field in England is also available for rent or purchase streaming (buy or rent).

3 thoughts on “320. A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)”

  1. Defenitely my favourite of Wheatley’s output. Happy to see it on the list. Gonna rewatch it soon to celebrate :>

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