I’ve never quite understood the wide-spread appeal of Ben Wheatley. Wheatley shows immense skill behind the camera, he has a great visual sense and manages to create grim but fascinating worlds purely through his use of camera techniques and cinematography. However, at least for me, Wheatley has never delivered on this potential, instead creating a collection of films which all fall apart in the second half and never quite match their early promise. Now Wheatley is back with his 4th feature, A Field in England, which on paper sounds stripped down and lighter in scope than his previous work.
A Field in England is set during the English Civil War of the 17th Century. A group of soldiers decide to escape from the fighting, literally running away from it. Stumbling through a field, the men battle for control, with one seemingly in control of the others and threatening his captives with hallucinogens. All seems lost for the captives, until all of them are kidnapped by an evil Irishman and forced to dig for a supposedly large treasure buried in the field.
The plot in A Field in England isn’t particularly easy to follow, as such I wouldn’t be surprised if my summary is a little off. The dialogue jumps from fairly standard English to very English slang to even harder to understand Shakespearean. The plot is driven by this dialogue, which makes for an interesting and confusing experience. It’ll no doubt add a lot when revisited or when watched with subtitles, but for a first viewing you can’t help but scratch your head. Watching it with friends may provoke many to question “What is going on? I’m lost!”.
Due to the confusing dialogue, the cast are all starting on the back foot. Thankfully though they all to a decent job in transcending the material and making characters whose overarching goals are easier to understand thanks to their motions and expressions. These small things are sometimes an under-appreciated element of acting, but A Field in England does show how talented actors can be at bringing the audience closer to the material. These actors aren’t delivering epic speeches, instead their performances are almost entirely based around their facial and body movements. For me Michael Smiley is the highlight, his vicious O’Neill is absorbing and scary, his arrival halfway through breathes a lot of life into proceedings.
Despite all this borderline negativity, there are a few very distinctive shining lights in A Field of England. There is the gorgeous black and white cinematography by Laurie Rose, the bombastic score by Jim Williams and Wheatley’s energetic and inventive direction and editing. Rose has shot all of Wheatley’s films and this is by far their best collaboration to date, words can’t describe how breath-taking and original Rose’s approach to this film is. It feels like a fucked up Terrance Malick film, with the cinematography driving all of the films moments of brilliance. James Williams score is his first and shows a lot of potential, the use of big drums sets the scene in the opening seconds and continues to soar throughout. Wheatley gets a good wrap because he brought all these elements together, edited them and made a functioning film that really shouldn’t work at all.
Despite sounding stripped back when compared to Wheatley’s other work, A Field in England has a distinctly larger scope and one that feels unreachable. The film constantly keeps the audience an arm’s length away and this is at great detriment to the overall package. You may walk away cold and unsatisfied, but there is still a lot to love about the film and it is, rather strangely, Wheatley’s most accessible. The cinematography and score will be universally loved and these key elements make a difficult film that much easier to watch. Wheatley fans will lap it up and those not so in love with him will still find enough to enjoy, it is his best film to date.