×

Film Review: ‘A Field in England’

A defiantly unclassifiable cross-genre experiment that simultaneously reinvents and regurgitates low-budget British cinema as it goes.

With:

Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope, Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley.

No two people who see “A Field in England” will agree upon what happens in the godforsaken clearing where helmer Ben Wheatley’s latest mind-bender takes place — a phenomenon that is both testament to Wheatley’s imagination-teasing ingenuity (the freakiest moments are those you don’t see) and byproduct of a startling lapse in basic storytelling competence. Brazenly rendered in black-and-white, and set against the creaky backdrop of the English Civil War, this defiantly unclassifiable cross-genre experiment blends elements of Sartrean soul-searching, Tigon-style folk horror and late-’60s psychedelia, an acquired-taste offering that simultaneously reinvents and regurgitates low-budget British cinema as it goes.

Though rapturously received by the London critics, who’ve rightly anointed Wheatley Brit film’s most dynamic new talent, this perplexing and ultimately tough-to-export project challenges not only existing narrative forms but also traditional means of distribution in the U.K., rolling out July 5 in theaters, on demand and via homevid and Film4’s free-TV formats, ensuring a quick flash of broad exposure on its home turf. Domestically, Drafthouse Films will have a far trickier time when it releases “Field” in the U.S. next year, since the most receptive potential viewers will have already sampled it via illegal means.

In what amounts to a battle of wills between five deserters who must also contend with supernatural forces, Wheatley extends the low-budget approach of “Kill List” and “Sightseers” (“Field” was reportedly shot for £300,000 over 12 days), while amplifying his pitch-black sense of humor and overt refusal to conform to well-laid genre conventions. 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.

The film opens with a warning of “flashing images and stroboscopic sequences” to come, and it achieves its stylistic apotheosis during the trippy interlude. After the characters have gorged themselves on wild mushrooms, Wheatley and writer/co-editor Amy Jump (also his wife) hypnotize the audience by cutting back and forth between shots of the various characters, folding and mirroring the images into disconcerting hallucinations (reminiscent of the symmetric tintype mutants Mark Mothersbaugh explores in his art).

Such tricks provide novelty value, but a gaping vacuum still looms where conventional narrative might go — not unlike the ominous dark star that appears above the field at one point. Although Wheatley and Jump have gotten away with eliminating exposition and traditional character detail in the past, it’s frustratingly difficult to follow what this motley group is searching for, much less to distinguish between the various personalities (unless one recognizes the actors from their previous cult film and TV credits).

Some of the characters have been lifted directly from other low-budget British movies. As the sadistic Irish necromancer O’Neill, Michael Smiley openly channels Vincent Price’s wicked turn in “Witchfinder General,” for example. Others appear redundantly clownish, buffoonishly preoccupied with getting drunk and/or scratching their private parts, but could be less confusing to Blighty auds familiar with the class caricatures they represent. The fellow who leaves the strongest impression is Whitehead (“The League of Gentlemen’s” Reece Shearsmith), an alchemist’s assistant whose loyalty to his offscreen master backfires in ways his piercing one-minute-long scream only begins to suggest — and the film pointedly refuses to reveal.

Stylistically, this unique undertaking is a mixed bag, alternately casual and contrived, graphically brutal and maddeningly obtuse. Occasionally, the action freezes in striking tableaux vivants, as the cast hold poses suggested by classical paintings; elsewhere, they come off as bumbling Civil War reenactors, blending Ye Olde vernacular with salty modern expressions. Peculiar as it all is to process, the experience feels quite unlike anything else, as if Wheatley is reaching for new devices with which to frighten his decidedly jaded audience.

The commitment to monochrome brings out a beauty largely absent in previous collaborations with d.p. Laurie Rose, though his handheld style and axis-breaking setups often disorient — and not necessarily in ways that help the psychic imbalance the pic means to achieve. The black-and-white lensing also serves to advance another low-budget British cinema tradition, evoking scrappy period pics by Peter Watkins (“Culloden”) and Kevin Brownlow (“Winstanley”), rendered fiendishly diabolical in Wheatley’s hands.

Though the team easily might have broadened the pic’s appeal by transposing their peculiar tale to a post-apocalyptic context (changing only the costumes in the process), the historical setting nicely emphasizes its undercurrents of sorcery and the dark arts. This occult dynamic is alluded to at points, but mostly left to the imagination. At times, it seems that literally anything could happen, and those who take most keenly to the film will be those who fill its gaps with vivid horrors of their own invention.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'A Field in England'

Reviewed online, June 11, 2013. (Also in Karlovy Vary Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 90 MIN.

Production:

(U.K.)  A Drafthouse Films (in U.S.) release of a Film4 presentation of a Rook Films production. (International sales: Protagonist Pictures, London.) Produced by Claire Jones, Andy Starke. Executive producer, Anna Higgs.

Crew:

Directed by Ben Wheatley. Screenplay, Amy Jump. Camera (B&W, widescreen), Laurie Rose; editors, Jump, Wheatley; music, Jim Williams; production designer, Andy Kelly; costume designer, Emma Fryer; sound, Rob Entwistle; sound design, Martin Pavey; special effects supervisor, Mark Holt; visual effects, Electric Theatre Collective; stunt coordinator, Glenn Marks; assistant director, James Sharpe.

With:

Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope, Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley.

More Film

  • Samuel-W.-Gelfman

    Samuel Gelfman, Roger Corman Film Producer, Dies at 88

    Samuel Gelfman, a New York producer known for his work on Roger Corman’s “Caged Heat,” “Cockfighter” and “Cannonball!,” died Thursday morning at UCLA Hospital in Westwood following complications from heart and respiratory disease, his son Peter Gelfman confirmed. He was 88. Gelfman was born in Brooklyn, New York and was raised in Caldwell New Jersey [...]

  • Margot Robbie stars in ONCE UPON

    Box Office: 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Pulls Ahead of 'Hobbs & Shaw' Overseas

    Sony’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” might not have hit No. 1 in North America, but Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is leading the way at the international box office, where it collected $53.7 million from 46 markets. That marks the best foreign opening of Tarantino’s career, coming in ahead of 2012’s “Django Unchained.” “Once [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Leads Crowded Weekend With $21 Million

    The Bean Bag Boys, the self-appointed nickname for the trio of best friends in Universal’s “Good Boys,” are conquering much more than sixth grade. They are also leading the domestic box office, exceeding expectations and collecting $21 million on opening weekend. “Good Boys,” which screened at 3,204 North American theaters, is a much-needed win for [...]

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content