Film Review: ‘A Field In England’. 4/5 Stars

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Human beings are mad bastards beset of all kinds of half-baked notions about life, the universe and everything. The less mad, those dedicated to reasonable analysis and considered thoughtfulness are simply out to spoil everyone’s fun. To imagine the exhaust of a jet plane as a mind control chemical designed by rogue government agencies is so much more delicious than the truth, which is sadly, mundane.

Screenwriter Amy Jump knows this and her script for the Ben Wheatley directed ‘A Field In England’ explores mankind’s tendency for fantastical thinking with glee. She is like a child playing in a sandpit, her words sharp and funny and her set pieces delirious in their execution.

Set during the English civil war (1642 – 1651), this allegory finds five men under the thrall of a ‘magician/sorcerer/seer’ set on the task of finding an undefined treasure he believes to be buried somewhere under the field in question. The treasure is probably a dream of wishful thinking, a childlike fantasy of gold as the would be magician contemplates paying off is considerable debts. Meanwhile his drugged compatriots dig away at the point of a gun dreaming of the ale that will be their reward should their task yield success.
Wheatley, not long off the set of the strange ‘Sightseers’, a piece of social commentary that sees his directorial skills take a big leap forward from earlier efforts, is on fire here. Bold and imaginative, Wheatley has taken a simple concept of five men larking about in a field on a mad venture and turned it into a compulsive feast of viewing, one filled with beauty, otherworldly strangeness and a unique sensibility that sets Wheatley above and beyond all his contemporaries.

Wheatley takes a classic cinematic narrative about a group of isolated people thrown together by circumstance (think Romero’s ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ or Huston’s ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’) and lets them go at it- power plays, alliances, betrayal and so forth. Jump obviously an enquiring researcher of some skill has set up the foundations beautifully recreating mindset, attitudes, language and all manner of other little cultural details which assist in building a fascinating interpretation of place and time.

The what, how and why and the interactions between these forces are played out in black and white, a cinematic art almost lost to time and one tremendously difficult to get right but Wheatley and his cinematographer Laurie Rose find all the requisite tones and in the process create a self-contained universe whose shades of grey possess their own logic and language. The other thing that Wheatley has gotten so right is the score. Not all Directors  properly appreciate the effect sound has on image but the great ones do. What would be Hitchcock without Herrmann or P T Anderson without Johnny Greenwood?

At times “A Field In England’ steers perilously close to early ‘Blackadder’ (this is a good thing) with a similar sensibility but this is not a some ‘Blackadder’ rip-off. The film takes the elements and creates an hallucinatory description of power and the insanity that overwhelms men possessed of a specific kind of ‘treasure’ lust, be it material or spiritual. Jump at one point wonders if those best able to handle wealth and power are the ones most afraid of their seductive promise. A subtle critic of the current state of economic affairs in Britain?

The Film also explores of mateship as viewed from a female perspective and again she has hit the nail on the head with her lucid understanding of the emotions that arise and wander between disparate men caught in strange situations. ‘A Field in England’ is a finely chiselled and barking mad parable and but one step shy of a masterpiece. If they can keep up this pace of artistic growth Wheatley and Jump are bound for glory. The maddest English film since 1973s ‘Wicker Man.’

 

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