Every once in a while, a filmmaker is discovered by audiences around the world through the festival circuit. This is truly a marvelous way to discover talent that you may not normally be able to see in your respective country. Writer/director Ben Wheatley gained a massive amount of attention after creating the brutally well-crafted Kill List. This strange, yet incredibly dark, feature dug its hooks into viewers and never let go. Only a year later, he brought us a dark comedy by the name of Sightseers. This proved that Wheatley is more than a one-hit wonder, and that he has a unique skill set that few filmmakers possess. So, it's no wonder why I was so excited to hear about A Field in England. My expectations were appropriately high, as I highly anticipated what he had up his sleeve next. He once again surprises us with his newest film, but not necessarily in a good way.
During the Civil War in 17th-Century England, a group of men flee from battle. They're titled as deserters, each for their own reasons. They make the decision to cross an overgrown field in search of an Ale House, but they soon begin to turn against one another. The group is captured by an alchemist, as they're forced to aid him in finding a hidden treasure that he believes is buried in the field. While he isn't sure exactly what this treasure is, he's certain of its importance and is willing to do anything in order to retrieve it. This ultimately unfolds into much more than a battle within sobriety, but also one within the world of mushrooms.
Within the first act, it becomes relatively clear what you've gotten yourself into. This is Ben Wheatley's approach to art house cinema. Anybody who knows me is very aware that I'm a big fan of visually-told motion pictures. I love mystery, ambiguity, and films that allow the audience to come up with their own interpretations. This makes for a wonderful discussion between viewers long after the credits are done rolling. However, A Field in England has a bad case of trying way too hard. Instead of naturally being ambiguous, it comes across as being incredibly forced. You'll constantly question what you're watching, and then you'll be asking why you're still watching. The pacing slows down to the pace of a snail, which doesn't pick up for quite some time. This is when you begin to realize that this picture isn't centralized around a plot at all. In fact, it's revolving around a single idea that perhaps would have been more effective in a live-action short film, rather than a full-length feature. Even though it only runs at an hour and a half, it feels much longer than that. By the time the credits start rolling, you'll feel as if you've been watching it for hours.
Not every film needs to be driven by a narrative, but the characters should be strong enough to make us care about what's going on. There should be some level of a connection between the audience and the people on the screen. Unfortunately, A Field in England doesn't give us much of a reason to care about any of these roles. While Jump and Wheatley have written decent-enough dialogue, I never found myself being even slightly interested in following these men. None of them have any stand-out personalities that make them memorable in any way. Every one of them feels like paper cut-outs of actual human beings, making it very difficult to become emotionally invested in their journey. A lot of the actions done by the roles are supposed to be interpreted by the audience, but I found them to be hollow. While I suppose that hypotheses could be created regarding why things play out the way that they do, I don't buy any of them. Instead of actually being thought-provoking, this feels a lot more like it just wasn't sure where to to take the characters next.
Fortunately, the final act of A Field in England manages to become a little bit more interesting. The visual symbolism that has been occurring throughout the running time begins to make a little bit more sense. Audiences are introduced to one of the weirdest drug trip scenes in years. Before the feature even starts, a disclaimer appears informing audiences of flashing images. Well, this message exists entirely for this sequence. This is surely the most successful scene in the entire film, as Wheatley succeeds in splitting our minds open. You'll constantly be paying very close attention to catch every single image that appears on the screen, but it leaves you feeling just as disoriented as the character. There's a lot of weird stuff that happens in A Field in England, and while a lot of it isn't necessarily my cup of tea, I can appreciate when a filmmaker manages to give viewers such a strong reaction.
Even though the concept isn't carried out as well as it could have been, the performances are quite strong. The cast includes actors such as Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope, Reece Shearsmith, and Michael Smiley. Even though the characters themselves are nearly impossible to connect with, the actors have successfully managed to intrigue audiences. They're always believable, whether they're having a conversation or are on drugs. Under Wheatley's direction, this cast delivers one hell of an impact that comes across as a punch in the gut. You won't see where it's coming from, but these actors somehow deliver impressive performances that aid in keeping our attention.
The strongest aspect of A Field in England is most certainly the visual style. Writer/director Ben Wheatley and his team have delivered an absolutely stellar-looking motion picture. The black-and-white cinematography looks absolutely stunning, especially through the final act of the running time. The trip sequence will leave you with your jaw on the ground. Every shot in this scene is beautifully-crafted, as the textures and camera movement are fantastic. The editing is a very crucial element in this motion picture, and it looks wonderful. Director Ben Wheatley has rendered an inspired piece of visual work that is not only pleasing to the eye, but also digs underneath the skin. These images aren't easy to get out of your mind. The film has its share of violence, but this is much more about the human mind under such a powerful trip.
After premiering at film festivals, A Field in England has certainly gained a crowd of fans. It has people talking about what a lot of the symbolism means, which is fantastic. I'm always glad to hear when cinema makes people talk about its ambiguous tones, rather than just spoon-feeding every bit of information to us. However, a lot of this film simply feels empty. The plot itself isn't one of the picture's main aspects. However, I expect the characters to be fascinating, and they aren't here. In fact, I had difficulty connecting with them on any level. Once the credits start rolling, the characters are the last thing you'll be thinking about, even despite the great performances. The visuals will be the only thing sticking in your head. The tripping sequence is one to remember, as it places us in an incredibly uncomfortable situation and laughs as it watches us squirm. This is a brilliant scene of the movie, and I wish the quality of it was spread throughout the film. A Field in England has some outstanding moments, but it simply fails to come together in order to create a cohesive and worthwhile motion picture. Skip it.