Today I watched Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013)
Whitehead is an alchemist’s apprentice who has been sent to apprehend a fellow occultist by the name of O’Neil who has supposedly stolen his master’s works and secrets. This is the time of the English Civil War and Whitehead finds himself in the company of a few deserters from this horrific conflict. As they wander the titular field in search of an alehouse, they find O’Neil through strange a mystical events. O’Neil dominates Whitehead and assumes control of the band, for he is searching this field for a great treasure he believes is buried there.
Like a great work of alchemy, A Field in England is a union of irreconcilable elements. The film is both minimalist and maximalist in equal measure, it takes the most basic and stripped down setting, an empty field, and makes it into a mystical place of strange supernatural forces. The black and white imagery is staid at first, but soon brings in many surreal influences and eventually explodes with stroboscopic and other effects. This contrasts with certain scenes in which film will present a silent tableau with the respective cast holding poses. The dialogue also bounces between two extremes, part Shakespearean part Guy Ritchie, all fitting into the themes of Britishness inherent in the film.
What this film manages to do with so little is quite startling, a quintessentially British surreal fantasy. While many of the cinematic techniques on display are obtuse and indulgent, they work here to create a mystical atmosphere. The film also frequently invokes the occult in a manner that hearkens back to the original meaning of knowledge of the hidden. This film may be a great and mysterious sigil, or perhaps it’s meaning is as obvious as the title, it is about England. That being the case it is still an attempt to catalogue that ineffable quality that all places have that cannot be quantified in reductive phrase.
Whether or not Wheatley’s vision of England rings true is not for me to say, what I can say is that it is a thoroughly engaging work. It can be a harrowing watch as the visuals and more grotesque plot elements unfold, but the unflinching, yet dreamlike, perspective of the film makes it one of the most interesting uses of occultism in cinema. As an attempt to capture the unquantifiable spirit of a place, this film should be seen as a premier example in the field and should be viewed by all who want an idea of how to approach such a difficult task. 5/5