“I shall consume all the ill fortune which you are set to unleash”
Today i’ll be taking a look at, and sharing my thoughts on, the 2013 film ‘A Field In England’. Directed by Ben Wheatley (‘Kill List’ 2011, ‘Sightseers’ 2012) and co-written by Amy Jump (although Wheatley has actually had his name removed from the script because he believed the end product was down to Jump’s writing rather than his.) Safe to say, this is definitely an odd ball.
I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so struck by the style of a film, rather than elements like plot and art design. It’s a film that’s nostalgic of the 20th century hallucinogenic movies – surreal works like ‘The Holy Mountain’ (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973) or ‘The Devils’ (Ken Russel, 1971.) To be honest it’s a style that runs deeper than the obvious dark tone and literal monotone colouring – it’s a style of anti-exposition. Basically it’s a film that doesn’t like explanations.
The film revolves around a band of men including an alchemist (Reece Shearsmith) who find themselves fleeing from an English civil war battle – accidentally stumbling upon a field filled with mystical mushrooms and a sorcerer (Michael Smiley) who promises there lies a great treasure underground. It doesn’t take very long for a viewer to realise that this film isn’t conventional, I would go as far as to label it as ‘surreal’ even though many others wouldn’t. It’s a work that doesn’t feel the need to explain itself in any respect. Wheatley even commented in an interview with Film 4 that he didn’t want the characters to be constantly explaining an environment which they’re used to for an audience. Now that seems quite realistic, until you reach that stunningly twisted environment in the narrative and you realise that realism would be the last word to use in reference to this film. It’s no spoiler to mention that the characters all find themselves lost in a shroom fuelled trance of fear of mystic obsession as they attempt to escape the sorcerer and the field itself which acts as an imposing physical boundary for them. In this ending segment of the film, it’s fair to say the cinematography goes absolutely off the rails. We see the whole world of the film through a lens of ceaseless strobe lighting and frantic manipulated angles to give everything a overwhelming otherworldly quality. The work throws aside any coherent plot to instead provide you with a singular terrifying experience, defying conventional ‘logic’ in how we understand events to follow on from each other. You almost get the sense that it’s all happening at the same time.
It’s this that really feels surreal. Surrealism often defies our standard view of logic, cause and effect, everything has it’s reasons etc. Take the Italian futurists of the early 20th century who wrote many theatrical performances to take place at incredible speeds, so you’d have dramas which only equated to about 2 minutes. Or you could take a look at any catalogue of surrealist painters like Dali, Ernst or Carrington to see that surrealism embodies this rejection of explanation, it is against exposition in it’s aim to create expression that comes from a deeper level of consciousness. It comes from an abstract layer that is not processed through the ‘logical’ routes of the brain. Now I’m increasingly aware that I’ve used a lot of terms people may dispute, and i’m no psychologist or film maker. Nonetheless I watched this film in the same way I would look at the painters above. I experienced it in a different way, accepting it as a mode of expression that’s just a bit different.
You might now be aware of the bulging paradox of this post – that being if surrealism defies conventional explanation, then why am I explaining it? Well the point is i’m not – bear with me here.
I’m basically ignoring the plot, and instead looking at the film as a series of images, thrown up like the same surrealist artists in the early 20th century and in the Dada movement. It’s like an upheaval of the sub-conscious, and yet it feels distinctly human. The characters develop their own individual sense of fear, Shearsmith’s character transcending to an almost prophet like state of madness while Richard Glover’s character becomes obsessed with a religious fervour, constantly trying to work out why God is punishing them and ultimately facing the potential absence of said God. So you still get a sense of who everyone is, the problem is only the ‘why’ bit – that’s not so clear cut. It would definitely defeat the point of this film for me to try and explain it, aside from the fact that I would be lying. I have no idea what ‘A Field In England’ is about, all I know is that it left me with a sore brain and a shaken soul.
The images we’re provided come in a succession of acts, sometimes even introduced by the characters posing in Brecht-like stills to remind us all that what we’re watching is unique from what we were expecting when we first sat down. The scene with Shearsmith consuming the circle of mushrooms feels climactic, as does the sequence where the sorcerers image is manipulated – so you end up with what appears to be a bat like figure looming out of the screen. The soundtrack by Jim Williams often blends folk-like traditional music of the period (with Richard Glover having his own ballad part) and sweeping modern ambience – again creating this uneasy feeling as you’re unable to place the film in any kind of genre. Probably the most disturbing scene is that where Shearsmith is possessed. After what feels like an eternity of listening to him screaming we see a slow motion processions of him grinning madly, tied up with a rope harness and lead out by the sorcerer – wielding him like a pet as he runs to the sound of a flute playing ‘ring-a-ring-a-roses’. The whole thing sounds ridiculous but when you see it it strikes an uncanny nerve and the piece seamlessly transitions into that of a bizarre horror without you really noticing. It’s the kind of disturbing you can only get from an image or a slight glance of the eye, a discomfort that’s ramped up by something so small. Again, the film throws up an image so unexpected that it conveys a raw slice of emotion into your brain without you even realising it. All these images thrown at you one at a time feel like a surreal avalanche, but one that seems to have some kind of purpose. Even something simple like a man lying in a field which is upside down – you’re constantly having your expectations subverted again and again. Sure, the more the film does this the less effective it gets, as you eventually learn to not expect anything at all. Perhaps it does rely on this one technique too much, but it still works. Trust me.
I suppose you could try to link it’s religious connotations to a subversion of belief systems themselves, maybe you could argue that it parodies the ridiculousness of the witch hunts of James Ist along with the paranoia that came with said movement. Because really the other thing to remember is the amount of this film that’s historical. Aside from it’s setting, the whole concept of mushroom circles inducing fits of madness and the occult spreading throughout enchanted , deserted areas (such as a field) is firmly based in English folklore – a lore that is often forgotten. In a way it’s the dawning of the English pastoral, and so parodies that belief. It’s as if Wheatley and Jump sat down and thought ‘Imagine if that actually happened?’. You could say this is the point where the film diverts from surrealism to more hands on exploration of the occult – but i’d argue that the way it presents this exploration is still surreal. Those same images may refer to religious obsession and English witchcraft, but when they’re up on screen an audience remembers them simply for being striking in the same way surrealists pull images from the subconscious to strike an nerve that you didn’t even know was there. Whether or not someone liked the film I’m fairly sure they’ll remember it.
Take the scene where the main gang of men pull out the sorcerer for the first time from the centre of the field, turning a lever to pull a long rope out of the grass, eventually revealing the sorcerer tied up and covered in dirt. This is actually based on a 16th century belief, that a man could only be pulled out of a circle of entrapment by this method, he could not leave it on his own. Now on the one hand you could explore the historical implications of this, or even that this idea of escaping one’s fate embodies the arch of the film.After all, the ending image is that of Sheersmith donning the sorcerers cape and leaving the field, escaping his fate, only to find all the other characters standing by him, distinctly not being dead as they were about ten minutes ago. On the other hand, I just thought about the image. That weird concept of pulling someone from a place unseen into another reality by rope, of unleashing a power like that into being in some kind of cosmic event. Now that for me is surreal.
I think that’s the thing to remember. At it’s base, surrealism is there to provide raw experience. The feeling when experiencing a surrealist work can be immediate or gradual, but it should come from a place that you can’t really explain. That’s how I felt about this film. I have my own opinions on what all this symbolism could represent, but that’s irrelevant. It would defeat the point for me to try and explain it. For me the film is about making you think about that unseen place, what the boundaries of it are, and how fragile our understanding of that kind of thing is. To be honest that’s as far as it goes in terms of explaining itself, and that’s why it’s such a great example of anti-exposition in surrealism. Instead of explaining itself it forces you to try instead.
I’d definitely recommend this one, even if it can occasionally get lost in it’s own style and camera angles it does nothing but astound from start to finish. If anything just watch it out of morbid fascination.
“If you do not cease, we may be blasted by an ill planet.”