Put that in your pipe and smoke it: A critical review of “A Field in England” (2013)

In case you haven’t noticed, I like weird movies. So when I first heard about writer-director Ben Wheatley’s “A Field In England,” a movie that practically got through college based on its weirdness, I knew I had to see it. Certainly I was hooked by its bizarre premise. At least, I had never heard of a psychedelic war film that took place in 17th century Surrey, let alone one that was supposed to be quite pretty. How could I not like this film? Well, as it turned out…yeah, I liked it.

First things first. “A Field in England” is quite pretty. Shooting in black-and-white is a surefire way for a low budget film to look arty and atmospheric, but Wheatley has a flair for visuals that would have carried the movie well beyond the realm of conventional thriller anyway. In fact, given the film’s loose grasp on reality, there are lengthy periods where visuals are all you have to hold onto: Characters approach in slow motion, framed in a wide shot; the camera pauses to view the titular field through the lens of a spider web dripping with dew; the actors even freeze from time to time, like stationary figures in a Renaissance painting. If nothing else, this is the prettiest movie you will ever watch that features a man struggling to defecate in a field.

The plot? Well, “Field” is a historical epic in the same way that “Psycho” is a primer on responsible hotel management. “Field” is about alchemist Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), who is joined by a lot of deserting soldiers on a quest to capture the rogue alchemist O’Neil (a viscerally menacing Michael Smiley). When they encounter O’Neil in the titular field, he mesmerizes them into helping him hunt for a treasure, and things go from bad to out there.

It’s nice how well characterized the characters are. The soldiers feel distinct from each other, and their motivations are clearly outlined, and present both material (treasure) and psychic (knowledge, duty, friendship) desires. It helps that the cast is so small, but it doesn’t hurt that the ensemble is a talented lot (mostly veterans of the BBC).

The events take place during the English Civil War, and it feels right; the costumes and dialogue are all perfectly 17th century–the soundtrack in particular, by Wheatley alum Jim Williams, sticks to pleasantly Renaissance faire arrangements. But the film is (perhaps refreshingly) not interested in saying something “smart” about its era–there is no laughter cast back from an unforgiving future on the players and events.

“Field” is in part classified as a horror movie because it is so odd that no one knew how else to classify it–and Wheatley is a “horror” director, right?–but it’s also a horror movie because it’s about what happens when our notions of reality break down. It would be easy to do a horrors of war/horrors of man kinda deal, but Wheatley has something far more cosmic in mind. And that’s where the drugs come in.

So how psychedelic is “Field”? Well, my father, a survivor of Haight-Ashbury hippie-dom, scoffed at the film for being black-and-white. No seriously psychedelic film, he said, could do without a cornucopia of color. Maybe, but that doesn’t stop the movie from being pretty damn trippy, although this is an acid fantasy by way of Arthur Machen. At one point, Whitehead vomits a small collection of casting runes. “I have no recollection of consuming anything of the remotest sort,” he says of the mystical stones, with all the surprised sincerity of a frat boy realizing he’s just set his beer on the table sideways. And the film does deliver on that strobe light warning, albeit only during the last 10 minutes or so.

Perhaps “Field” is exploring the loss of faith that occurred during the learning process of the Enlightenment. Whitehead certainly has a lot to lose: his faith in his God, his faith in his master, his faith in the royal political system that is crashing down around the respective country’s head.

But on the flip side, when events are this bizarre, when notions of memory, identity and reality are thrown out the window, you almost have to blatantly accept the supernatural because, seriously, what the hell else is there at that point? Despite the political and psychological upheaval around them, the characters remain quite receptive to their situation. “It does not surprise me that the devil is an Irishman,” one soldier notes when first meeting O’Neil. “Though perhaps a little taller,” he adds. I suppose you could blame it on the mushrooms, but even psychedelics have their limits. You can either decide that the camera itself has become an unreliable narrator, or you can just accept the unacceptable. And isn’t that kind of paradox what consciousness expansion is all about?

6 thoughts on “Put that in your pipe and smoke it: A critical review of “A Field in England” (2013)

  1. Thanks for the link! Great piece on an insane little film—I’m still not sure where I sit with this one but it is certainly another distinct film from Wheatley, who’s a brilliant filmmaker.

    Liked by 1 person

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