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A Psychedelic Trip, Down History Lane

A Field in England (2013)

Dean Rogers/Picturehouse Entertainment

Ben Wheatley has steadily established himself as a director of considerable craft, boundless diversity and unabashed ambition; seemingly as comfortable helming an occultist horror thriller (“Kill List”) as he is a pitch-black comedy (“Sightseers”). For his fourth full feature, Mr. Wheatley turns his hand to 17th-century English Civil War psychedelia with “A Field in England,” a baffling but brave sojourn into the fantastical.

Mr. Wheatley transports us to 17th-century England, a country riven by civil war and imagined here in stunning black-and-white. Ostensibly the premise is a simple one: alchemist and reluctant coward Whitehead (a towering Reece Shearsmith) abandons the battlefield and his vituperative master before chancing upon fellow deserters, the shady Cutler (Ryan Pope), crass Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and well-meaning simpleton Friend (Richard Glover).

As this motley bunch seek sanctuary from battle, the interplay of Amy Jump’s almost Shakespearean screenplay with Laurie Rose’s sumptuous, artistic cinematography lends proceedings an ethereal, utterly surreal and dreamlike air.

It soon transpires that Cutler’s motives are far from honorable, as — in thrall to his mysterious master O’Neill (a snarling Michael Smiley) — he coaxes our mob into a torturous search for treasure buried in said field.

From here on in, as O’Neill exploits the dark arts for ill-gotten gain, Mr. Wheatley’s vision abandons a traditional structured narrative as he peppers his picture with hallucinogenic trips and staged tableaux vivants which are reminiscent of Rembrandts and delves into lofty thematic exploration of good versus evil, control and submission and nature versus man.

Accompanied by James Williams’s entrancing and discomfiting score, it all makes for a perfectly transcendental descent into a paranoid nightmare, rounded off of course with some trademark Wheatley ultraviolence.

There are also heavy David Lynchian overtones and hints of homage to Stanley Kubrick throughout, so it’s no surprise that much of what transpires is confusing; although there’s a sense that a second or a third watch would prove rewarding. Ultimately, though, this is the tale of the coward redeemed and it’s a hypnotic one at that.

While by no means perfect, what Mr. Wheatley manages to achieve with “A Field in England” is to firmly establish himself as one of the most unique, interesting and diverse directors working today and a risk taker willing to experiment with form and function. One senses that he has a very bright future indeed.


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