From Down Terrace to the soon-to-be-released Free Fire, Ben Wheatley has cemented his reputation as one of the most celebrated and interesting voices in British cinema of the last decade. Starting with kitchen-sink realism for his debut, he swiftly moved into deeply disturbing horror territory with Kill List, then on to the pitch-black comedy Sightseers, before hugely upping his ambition with an English Civil War story, a J.G. Ballard adaptation, and now a 90-minute sustained shootout. Though belonging to vastly different genres, his films are united by a comically sadistic and unsympathetic worldview — one which reached its pinnacle with 2013’s A Field in England.
Less nakedly transgressive than most of his other work (you’ll find no dog tongue-on-bumhole action or rapes set to ABBA songs here), A Field in England is an utterly unique piece; a drug- and paranoia-fuelled quasi-history lesson starring some of Britain’s best character actors and comedy stars. Oh, and the whole thing is in black and white, too. It’s supremely confident filmmaking, and experimental in a way that you almost never see from a period piece. As a less-than-merry band of deserters get trapped in a field by mad magician O’Neill (Michael Smiley), we get to witness the psychological disintegration of men destroyed by war (and a decent dose of hallucinogens).
Where Wheatley’s previous films had looser, more improvisation-friendly scripts, A Field in England’s subject matter required something more literary – and considering Ballard’s High-Rise and a sci-fi (Freakshift) were both to come, this move was inevitable. Luckily, Wheatley’s regular screenwriting partner (and wife) Amy Jump proved more than up to the task, crafting something poetic and profane, perfectly in tune with the grisly and mucky – yet otherworldly and extremely ambitious – story and visuals. It also allows for a great ensemble of performances, from Michael Smiley’s vicious villain to Reece Shearsmith’s writhing turn as ostensible hero of the piece Whitehead. There’s even room for a small but memorable part for the ever-magnificent Julian Barratt, of Mighty Boosh and Nathan Barley fame.
It’s a tiny cast, and it’s amazing the scope that Wheatley manages to convey with just a few men in scraggly beards and costumes out in the middle of a nondescript field. Faith is tested and shattered, the exhaustion of war makes its full weight felt, and the phenomenal scene in which Whitehead ingests magic mushrooms and proceeds to trip out of reality gives us black magic and cosmic horror, all with Wheatley’s trademark dark humour.
The aforementioned trip scene is an absolute triumph, the best single sequence that Wheatley has done, a kaleidoscope of bizarre images and interplanetary visions that manages to sear your retinas even without the use of colour, and on a miniature £300,000 budget. It’s disorienting and mesmerising, the kind of purely cinematic scene that comes along rarely and must be cherished when it does. It’s a perfect crescendo to a film that has up to that point dealt in escalating and surreal hysteria and eventually concludes with an ambiguous, and possibly crushingly sad, ending.
With very little money, only six actors, and an amazing surplus of inspiration and energy, A Field in England drags its audience back into a brutal and psychedelic past with frightening force. It’s not quite as gut-wrenchingly terrifying as Kill List, but every element comes together to make for the most complete and satisfying entry into the Wheatley canon, and one of the very best films of 2013. It’s ambitious without overstretching itself, as High-Rise did, and features some of the most inventive visuals you could hope to see in any film, let alone a violent British historical caper that cost less than half a million pounds. Here’s hoping that the similarly pared-down Free Fire can match up.