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A Field in England is not so much a film, more a metaphysical epileptic fit. Its unprecedented multiple opening in Britain – simultaneously in theatres and on DVD, video-on-demand, Blu-Ray and (tonight) TV channel Film4 – suggests the film’s creators think either “Here is a commercial turkey, let’s take the money and run” or “Here is a new epoch of cinema. Everyone gather round.”
I’ll go with the second. This wonderful, bewildering movie from Ben Wheatley, scripted by wife-collaborator Amy Jump (Kill List) and set on a day during the English civil war, has put reviewers at sixes, sevens and any other number you can think of. Try to decode a plot in which a band of deserters, of both sides, stumble into a mushroom-encircled field being surveyed, mysteriously, by a treasure-seeking alchemist. The film begins in violence, ends in violence – a thieves-fall-out climax of multiple shootings – and in between traipses a landscape sown with the surreal, the symbolic, the fantastical.
The rite of entrance into the field is a tug of war with a rope; a rope later leashes Whitehead, the story’s mournful-quizzical buffoon (Reece Shearsmith of TV’s The League of Gentlemen finding fresh shades of dark comedy), as he is sent snuffling for gold or treasure. Umbilical symbol-scape? Sounds it. My theory: A Field in England is about the birth of modern Britain, maybe the modern world. The English civil war was the set-to that preceded and in part precipitated the Enlightenment – that age when the quest for gold and the quest for God both started to become yesterday’s mysticisms – and here is a Prospero-like mage in a desert field (with mushrooms to hand!) practising his arts before a final, fate-coerced abdication.
The black-and-white photography, magically lit and textured, is like the primitive canvas on which the contemporary world starts to be daubed. In one visually astonishing sequence Wheatley melds the characters in quick-fire kaleidoscopic patterns, like a speeded-up version of the old Surrealists’ heads-and-bodies game. Its meaning? Perhaps that every person is everyone else until he becomes himself. (Definition of existentialism.) Likewise – that is surely the din of war planes we hear overhead in one battle scene? – every time is every other time, the present containing the past as memory, the future as potentiation.
A Field in England spins a single moment in history so that it becomes the centrifuge of all history. It is a ridiculously bold, imaginative movie. Its whirring dynamic is as likely to fling audiences outwards in fright or flight as to have them pinned, thrilled and gravity-defiant, to its fun-fair walls. I nominate it as a cult classic right now, with the “cult” disposable in the future at the first stage of canonic lift-off.— Nigel Andrews, Financial Times
Fri & Sat April 18 & 19, 2014, 7:30 only, Muenzinger Auditorium
UK, 2013, in English, Black and White, 90 min, 2.35 : 1