A Field in England
Runs Fri., Feb. 7–Thurs., Feb. 13 at SIFF Film Center and SIFF Cinema Uptown. Not rated. 90 minutes.
Anyone innocently wandering into A Field in England can be forgiven for thinking they’ve stepped through a time portal to the late ’60s. Along with its arty approach and unexplained allegorical premise, the movie explodes into full-on psychedelia after a certain stage—all the weirder for being in black-and-white. One wants to summon a few reference points, but even this is challenging. The movie’s a little Waiting for Godot and a little Magical Mystery Tour, with Vincent Price’s character from Witchfinder General hanging around. We should invoke Monty Python, too, for the film’s grubbiness and catch-all social criticism. (Had they been younger, the surviving Pythons might’ve made a fine cast for this.)
The actual setting has nothing to do with Swinging London; the film’s summary says it’s set in the mid-17th century, so that’s what we’ll go with. All of the action takes place in featureless fields, where a small group of soldiers trudges along after fleeing a battle. The most talkative of them, Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), is actually no soldier, but a scholarly servant out doing the bidding of his unseen “master.” He and his filthy fellow deserters fall under the sway of an Irishman named O’Neil (Michael Smiley), who claims to be an alchemist and says that if they begin digging holes in the field, they will find gold. This goal, clearly absurd, is enough to define this temporary five-man social experiment.
Director Ben Wheatley (Down Terrace, Sightseers), working with screenwriter and frequent collaborator Amy Jump, creates a distinctive world, that’s certain. Like many British artists, Wheatley is obsessed with the subject of Englishness, and he leaves no class or type unscathed. So the movie probably has more sock for UK viewers, to say nothing of the fact—for this hearing-impaired Yank, at least—that maybe a third of the dialogue is unintelligible. (At least the trippiest stroboscopic parts, however migraine-inducing, are without dialogue.) Speaking of the psychedelics, it’s typical of this film’s puzzling storytelling that we can’t be quite sure when things go off the even keel. The fellows ingest their first stewed mushrooms fairly early on, which could explain the curious arrival of O’Neil—tied up at the end of a thick rope attached to a tribal-looking post?—and other such happenings. The maddening thing is that for all the film’s doodling, occasional moments are genuinely funny or haunting. Whitehead’s slow-motion stumble out of O’Neil’s pitched tent, where something unspeakable has just happened, is A Field in England at its best: arresting, druggy, and mystifying.