A Field in England – review

Kill List director Ben Wheatley turns the period drama to his usual subversive ends in a grisly slice of English civil-war psychedelia

During the English civil war, Thomas Hobbes wrote in his Leviathan that without general submission to the sovereign, our natural selfishness would predominate, chaos would reign and the life of man would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". If Hobbes had seen this film, he would amend the passage to read "intensely solitary, very poor, extremely nasty, horribly brutish and rather similar to Mr Ben Wheatley's 91-minute mummery, A Field in England." Or perhaps, given that these circumstances apply despite the characters' submission to a sovereign, of sorts, he might want to delete it altogether.

Wheatley's new film is grisly and visceral, an occult, monochrome-psychedelic breakdown taking place somewhere in the West Country during the civil war. A group of deserters, starving and staggering across country in the entirely delusional hope of an "alehouse" over the next hill, fall under the sinister control of O'Neil, a necromancer and practitioner of the forbidden arts, played by Michael Smiley. O'Neil enforces his sadistic will especially on the cringing scholar Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), who is required to help him locate a buried cache of gold somewhere in the field. Amid the carnage of war, the men's fear of death, pain and the non-existence of God creates the conditions for general hysteria that is ignited by eating the variously shaped mushrooms sprouting in the soil.

A Field in England is a film exposed to the elements, shivering with fever and discomfort. Smiley is a great O'Neil, scary and commanding, while Shearsmith's Whitehead is hilariously submissive, for all his attempts to give himself airs as a man of learning, and to pass off his temporary association with these cowardly stragglers as a mere "alchemy of circumstance". There is something unexplainably awful in the scene in which Whitehead emerges grimacing or grinning at the end of a rope, after he has been subjected to some nameless brutalisation in the privacy of O'Neil's tent, utterly affirming his subjection to the master's will. Perhaps the film's biggest formal inspiration is its period "tableaux" sequences in which the characters will hold a mysterious group pose stock-still, as if for a painting, or to demonstrate some particular aspect or metaphorical truth of their agony and mortification.

The monochrome images, created by cinematographer Laurie Rose, naturally call to mind a similar black-and-white picture, Kevin Brownlow's Winstanley (1976). O'Neil has something of Vincent Price's severity and contempt in Michael Reeves's civil war-set film, Witchfinder General (1968). Whitehead would appear to be on the royalist side, and O'Neil also, but nothing is entirely clear; the latter's Irish accent incidentally colours and complicates what we might take to be his attitude to Cromwell. A Field in England actually draws on a tradition that sees the English revolution as a period of visionary radicalism and insurrection, though this is here converted with cynicism and despair. All the digging and ranting is with something other than utopia in view. "The world is turned upside down," says one character, "and so is its pockets."

The film's writer is Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley's long-time collaborator (they edit the film together); here they are working to create a more literary screenplay, without the improv feel of their earlier works. It sometimes sounds like something by Dennis Potter or Edward Bond, and its Englishness has recognisable cousins in Peckinpah's Straw Dogs and Bruce Robinson's Withnail & I.

The central "strobe" scene, as the mushrooms kick in and the party commences, is eyeball-frazzling and cerebellum-sizzling; the film begins with an entirely serious warning about this forthcoming effect. (I was reminded of the non-serious warning to the faint-hearted that Gaspar Noé put into one of his films – and Noé is a big fan of torturing his audiences with stroboscopic flickering.) It is incredible just how freaky black-and-white visuals can be: a shimmering chequerboard anxiety attack. Shearsmith's stunned face, as he looks up at a giant black planet or sun that gradually fills his field of vision, is a picture of denatured rapture, and his performance here is equal to and better than the "gothic" characters he has created on television.

What a unique film-maker Wheatley is becoming. From the realms of contemporary social realism, crime, comedy and fear, he has moved on to lo-fi period drama, but cleverly alighted on the one period that suits his stripped-down visuals and subversive instincts perfectly. The English revolution may be the one that isn't taught in schools, but it has provided the inspiration for a punk nightmare.

• This article was amended on Friday 5 July 2013. We said that Amy Jump co-wrote A Field in England with Ben Wheatley. In fact she is the sole writer. This has been corrected.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
A Field in England – review

Ben Wheatley's psychedelic period drama is as brutal as it is tedious, writes Catherine Shoard

Catherine Shoard

07, Jul, 2013 @12:03 AM

Article image
A Field in England - video review

Our critics review Ben Wheatley's thriller about English civil war soldiers searching through a magic mushroom patch to find buried treasure

Henry Barnes, Catherine Shoard, Peter Bradshaw, Ken Macfarlane, Sonal Bajaj and Thibaut Remy

05, Jul, 2013 @12:43 PM

Article image
A Field in England: the TV premiere - as it happened

Stuart Heritage: Ben Wheatley's new film has been given a pioneering release: in cinemas, on DVD, and on TV all on the same day. Here's how it went down

Stuart Heritage

05, Jul, 2013 @11:14 PM

Article image
Sightseers – review

Comedies don't come much darker than this chillingly distinctive caravan caper from the makers of Kill List, says Peter Bradshaw

Peter Bradshaw

29, Nov, 2012 @9:00 PM

Article image
Free Fire review – warehouse shootout is bang on target | Peter Bradshaw's film of the week
Ben Wheatley’s thriller about a protracted gun battle, starring Brie Larson and Cillian Murphy, has no plot – but it’s smart, stylish and dazzlingly put together

Peter Bradshaw

30, Mar, 2017 @2:00 PM

Article image
A Field in England – giving away the whole plot

Phelim O'Neill: Ben Wheatley's new film is being released in all formats – cinema, DVD, VOD, even broadcast TV – on the same day. Is it a bold new model, or a reckless experiment?

Phelim O'Neill

04, Jul, 2013 @11:48 AM

Article image
High-Rise review – Tom Hiddleston shines in social-surrealist film of the year
The residents of a state-of-the-art tower block succumb to a collective breakdown in Ben Wheatley’s ingenious adaptation of the JG Ballard novel

Peter Bradshaw

17, Mar, 2016 @3:30 PM

Article image
Cleopatra – review
The restored big-screen version of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's mindboggling spectacle should not be missed, writes Peter Bradshaw

Peter Bradshaw

11, Jul, 2013 @8:34 PM

Article image
W.E. – review

Madonna delivers a tale of two wallies, says Peter Bradshaw

Peter Bradshaw

19, Jan, 2012 @9:40 PM

Article image
Faust – review

Peter Bradshaw: Sokurov's version of Goethe's tragedy is part bad dream, part music-less opera, with hallucinatory flashes of fear

Peter Bradshaw

10, May, 2012 @8:43 PM