Before proceeding to his upcoming big-budget adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, independent filmmaker Ben Wheatley received a limited budget and complete creative control for a small, idiosyncratic project of his choice. The result is A Field in England, an unabashed art film that’s a heady brew of alchemy, Christianity, and hallucinogenic mushrooms, shot in crisp black and white.
In the midst of the English Civil War, three soldiers and an alchemist’s assistant abandon the battlefield in search of an alehouse. Their journey takes a decidedly strange turn in the titular field when they discover the man the assistant has been sent to apprehend for stealing alchemical texts from his employer, from which has evidently derived some dark powers. What follows is a battle of wills involving magic as understood by the 17th-century mind. Despite comparisons to Ken Russell and the period horror films churned out by the Hammer and Amicus studios, and the invocations of Bergman and Fellini in its opaque surrealism, A Field in England structurally resembles a Western: the basic plot is a paraphrase of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, with several savage characters in wide-brimmed hats and long coats seeking a buried treasure as a civil war rages around them.
Of course, no Western I know of ever placed its characters in painterly still tableaux or subjected them to stroboscopic freakouts. The film’s free-floating weirdness feels deliberate rather than inevitable, as if Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump (his wife and frequent collaborator) have worked hard to make it strange. But perhaps that’s evidence of the degree to which modern audiences expect movies to make sense, in a way they didn’t in the late 60s and early 70s (a period from which this film draws inspiration), when psychedelia and surrealism crept into even mainstream fare, and films were weird not due to conscious effort but because they couldn’t be any other way.
If A Field in England has underlying symbolic order or meaning, they were invisible to me on first viewing. I’ll grant that it might, but even if it doesn’t, it hardly matters; this is the sort of incoherence a viewer can relish for its disorienting and suggestive effects. In an era when textual difficulty is regarded as an affront, an attempt to make the audience “feel stupid,” such a refusal to explain anything is refreshing. For all its impenetrability, though, A Field in England lacks the personal vision of a Carax, Carruth, or Reygadas — the sense that even if you have no idea what the film you’re watching means, and might not even like it, you can appreciate that it clearly means something to its creator. But any film that contains the line, “Your privy parts are doomed, homunculus,” certainly has its merits.