Studio: New Video Group
Director: Ben Wheatley
Writer: Amy Jump
Producer: Claire Jones, Andy Starke
Stars: Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope, Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley
An occultist recruits four army deserters to search for buried treasure in a battlefield of the English Civil War.
Thankfully, I watched “A Field in England” at home and not in a theater. Eight minutes in, I was lost. Confusingly tight close-ups of hands fiddling in pouches and drawing blunderbusses were lost in a flurry of fabric belonging to characters whose identities were indecipherable thanks to black and white imagery blending it all together. The personalities would be easier to distinguish later in the film with each of the five central gentlemen conveniently wearing a differently styled hat, save the man not wearing one at all. Yet all of the initial editing around pockets and fingertips made for a muddled mess not necessarily conducive to proper character introductions. Realizing that “A Field in England” demanded more determined focus, I set it aside, straightened my head, and started again from the beginning a short while later.
Sometimes when dialogue in a movie’s opening minutes is lost in a din of battlefield bombings and miscellaneous mutterings, an assumption can be made that they are probably cursory words unimportant in their unintelligibility and safe to ignore as such. When the main men of “A Field in England” continued speaking in confusing fashion long after such a point was still sensible, I realized there was a new problem. I was understanding words, but not what was being said.
Feeling like a candidate for the senior discount on my next early bird breakfast coffee, and I’m only 38 years old, I restarted the movie once more. On this go, I enabled the English subtitles for a movie that was already in English. Indeed, I was definitely thankful to be watching this at home and not in a theater.
Not that it would have made a difference. Even with the benefit of onscreen text deciphering mumbled accents and clarifying words uncommon to American ears like mummery, scrivener, homunculus, and stoat, I didn’t seem any better off in terms of following the rope. The dialogue grew only increasingly more difficult to discern in importance. Alternating between bemusing philosophy (e.g. “God will find all as easy over a card table as swinging from a tree.”) and lowbrow humor (one man’s constipation-related groans are met with the jab, “is it a boy or a girl?”), “A Field in England” was playing coy about how to handle its mixed tone.
When 24 minutes passed with nothing more eventful having taken place besides four battlefield deserters enjoying a boiled pot of mushroom stew, I stopped the film for a third time. Maybe I just didn’t “get it.”
I recalled director Ben Wheatley’s previous film “Sightseers” (review here) and remembered how that movie existed in a world all its own and was cruising for negative criticism when all at once, everything suddenly clicked and my unfavorable opinion did an instant 180 into one of enthused flattery. Perhaps instead of a “Sightseers effect,” it was worth considering if there was such a thing as a “Ben Wheatley effect.” Wheatley is widely considered a maverick filmmaker far more interested in artistic experimentation than in commercial or conventional appeal, after all. Dismissing “A Field in England” as inaccessible might be a premature move.
Thinking that I may simply require a more informed frame of mind, I turned to the Internet to see what others were saying about the film, which had garnered quite a bit of acclaim. Two reputable media outlets caught my eye and both were clicked. Either coincidentally or not so coincidentally, both reviews happened to use the phrase “get it” in quotation marks while breaking down the movie, which I took as confirmation of my suspicion. Now I “got it.” “A Field in England” was “that” kind of film.
This review is an indulgent first-person narrative because I understand this perspective better than I do that of this film. “A Field in England” involves five men engaging in dream fantasies inspired by the consumption of hallucinogenic mushrooms and I suspect that full appreciation of what Ben Wheatley means to accomplish might require an audience to do the same.
I cannot recommend the film, but my lack of comprehension for its story and its ultimate purpose disqualifies me from outright panning it. Some reviewers might presume that if a movie is over their heads, then it must be secretly brilliant and shameful to confess if it was not understood for fear of perceived unintelligence. I have no qualms about admitting I did not “get it,” but for me, that translates into apathy instead of admiration.
Maybe fans of “A Field in England” and Ben Wheatley himself are shaking their heads with disappointment and thinking me a Philistine for the admission. Or maybe I’m not that dense and Wheatley is secretly smirking his approval for not being fooled into thinking his movie is something more than a mad scientist experiment in hullabaloo conducted on the screen of an arthouse theater.
Review Score: 50