1648. During the English Civil War, three soldiers (Richard Glover, Peter Ferdinando, Ryan Pope) and a scholar (Reece Shearsmith) find themselves away from a battle in a mysterious field where O’Neil (Michael Smiley), an Irish alchemist, forces them to help him search for a perhaps-magical treasure.
A sense of the macabre, a feel for the English landscape (and the ruination done to it by suburban development) and the eccentric/sinister character stylings of Michael Smiley (one of those you-know-the-face actors who ought to be in everything) are recurrent in the films of the very busy Ben Wheatley, but he isn’t one to stick to any single genre. There’s a clear development in his filmography, but he is admirably uninterested in making the same movie over and over.
The Wheatley oeuvre to date encompasses a domestic gangster movie (Down Terrace), a crime/horror hybrid (Kill List) and a serial-killer comedy of manners (Sightseers). Now, with partner/regular screenwriter Amy Jump, he’s made a period piece (homing in on that fascinating, underfilmed era — the English Civil War) in black and white, which avoids undue expense by being set entirely out of doors in the eponymous patch of countryside. A tough film to synopsise or encapsulate, it evokes classic British horror (obviously ticking off Witchfinder General and Blood On Satan’s Claw as influences), but is closer in tone to a grittier yet still metaphysical brand of arthouse mystification. The heavily symbolist Bergman of The Seventh Seal or the hypnotic Herzog of Heart Of Glass come to mind, while a few tics — black frames between scenes, followed by live-action freezes as the actors pose in tableau — could be from the weirder elements of German silent cinema.
Less approachable than previous Wheatley films, and liable to frustrate those wanting explanations for everything, A Field In England is nevertheless compelling and strange. The characters perform absurd tasks (hauling on a rope to bring a major character into play) or undergo bizarre ordeals (Shearsmith makes a particularly odd transformation under torture), but the nature of the treasure they are after, or even of the field in which they struggle, remains up for post-film debate.
Very physical, with intense performances and half-serious period talk, it’s an impressive, haunting picture — though the sort of thing you have to meet at least halfway to enjoy.