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‘A Field In England’: A Trip Into The Psychotropic 17th Century

16 Jan

“I’d give anything for a good stew and a belly full of beer” announces one character shortly into the 2013 feature film A Field In England.  So may the audience at the closing credits of this delightfully dark, thoughtful and surreal film, having endured a turbulent 91 minutes in mid 17th century England wracked by an off-screen civil war.

Directed by Ben Wheatley, with a script by Amy Jump, A Field in England depicts the short journey of a ramshackle group of four men (Whitehead, Friend, Cutler and Jacob) who, having been traumatized and disillusioned by blood shed in civil war riven England (1642-1651 AD), desert the battlefield and seek solace searching for a fabled ale-house instead.  Only to their displeasure do they find that, during their desperate ramble, they come under the somewhat demonic spell of O’Neil, a man hellbent on finding treasure in a field who subsequently forces the four deserters to prospect and dig for suspected gold.  This is a necessarily brief synopsis because the film simply has to be seen to be understood although repeated viewings are recommended, if not required, for this slab of a historical film that potently mixes psychedelia and surrealism.

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A poster for the film, which was released in 2013. The feature draws obvious creative parallels with the Hammer Horror productions, although influences can also be detected from such classic films as the Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973) (Image credit: Mr&MrsWheatly).

Somewhat uniquely in British movie history the film was released simultaneously to the general audience at theaters, screened on Film 4, and made available both on video-on-demand and to purchase on DVD, all on the same day.  A Field In England was filmed entirely in monochrome and relies heavily on the dialogue to help drive the momentum of the action forward.

Having said that it is the film’s kaleidoscopic use of visual and sound effects that propel it into the surreal genre, with effective use of disorienting shots of the main characters helping to enforce the viewer to become uncomfortably close to all of them, whatever the audiences feelings on the characters motivations.  As the Guardian review of the film points out, it is the distinctive use of the films tableaux shots, long shots and often unexplained scenes that help to highlight and intensify the rare violent viscosity of the characters actions in the film itself (Bradshaw 2013).

Throughout the film there is a great earthly humour present in the dialogue throughout the film, which is richly veined with flashes of Shakespearean wit and character exposition.  Though it must be noted that the audience is never entirely sure on which side of the civil war that the characters each sit on.  Allusions to the fracturing of the fabric of society are noted throughout the film, both through the dialogue and through the monochrome visual effects used.  This is perhaps most notable during the breakdown of one the characters who has been indulging in magic mushrooms.  It has to be said that monochrome psychedelic images can be quite unsettling, but they are also extremely mesmerizing and effective, perhaps non more so than during Whitefield’s mushroom influenced experience.

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A still from A Field in England depicting the disturbing use of the magic O’Neil uses on one of the main characters.  In particular it is the use of sound during this tableaux scene that really lifts it as a whole, making it both distinctly uncomfortable but also unnervingly rather watchable.

As stated above the film does contain rare instances of fairly graphic violence, but it is largely in the form of interpersonal violence conducted between the small group of relative strangers that form the core of the characters in the film (minus the introductory scene).  Interestingly, for me at least, there were occurrences of firearm injuries that demonstrated the rather horrible effect of neat entry wounds and the large exit wounds that projectiles can inflict if they exit the body (Aufderheide & Martin-Rodriquez 2006: 28).  I’ve tried not to give any spoilers in this quick review but, archaeologically speaking, the skeletal remains and funerary context of the individuals who perish in this film would certainly give the archaeologists some interesting theories to debate.  Although it would not be the first time that human burials from the English civil war have intrigued archaeologists as the mass grave site found at All Saints church in York demonstrates (McIntyre & Bruce 2010: 36).

A Field in England also combines the characters doubts of the existence of God with discussions of the occult as O’Neil displays a distinct attachment to magic and charms, professing himself to be almost a necromancer.  In one particularly entrancing scene he manages to wrap ropes around Whitehead and use him as a human divining tool to locate his buried treasure.  In another scene he is seen clasping a black ceramic dish that has a significant and deep meaning for him and he implies it can see into the past, present and future.  Merrifield (1987) and Brück (1999) have highlighted the significant wealth in the material archaeological record that can, on occasion, lead to valid interpretations of the importance of ritual functionality and the role of magic in historic and prehistoric societies.  This is worth keeping in mind, particularly with A Field In England, as the film demonstrates the intermingling of the Christian faith with pagan practices, a probably common feature of medieval and late medieval England (Gilchrist 2008: 153).

In a variety of ways the film also reminded me vividly of Andrey Platonov’s novel The Foundation Pit.  This was particularly evident during the last third of the movie where the nature of the treasure is revealed for, as in both Wheatley’s film and Platonov’s book, the pit is never simply just a hole in the ground but a striking metaphor for society, in this case one that seemingly subsumes the bodies of those that question it (Platonov 2010: 224).  The Foundation Pit also dealt deftly with the symbolism of the vying individual and the collectivist state and the struggle between the two, similar in tone to the backdrop role that the civil war plays in this film that so sparks the characters to openly question society, death and the absence of God throughout the feature.    

Although I thoroughly enjoyed watching A Field In England, it is clearly not a film for everyone.  There is no doubt that the non-linear nature of the film will confuse many (and leave unanswered questions proposed by the viewer), but the film openly welcomes repeated viewings.  Regardless of this, I would recommend the film highly as it challenges the convention that historical films have to abide by strict cinematic convention.  Indeed this film actively calls for open interpretation and reflective thinking.  This is a playful and subversive film, one that is not afraid to stray into experimental territory to expose the flaws of the characters and to highlight the fundamental changes in the English civil war era.

Bibliography

Aufderheide, A. C. & Rodriquez-Martin, C. 2006. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Palaeopathology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A Field In England. 2013. Film. Directed by Ben Wheatley. United Kingdom: Rook Films.

Bradshaw, P. 2013. A Field In England – Review. The Guardian. 4th July 2013. Accessed 16/01/13.

Brück, J. 1999. Archaeology Ritual and Rationality: Some Problems of Interpretation in European Archaeology. European Journal of Archaeology2: 313-343. (Abstract).

Gilchrist, R. 2008. Magic for the Dead? The Archaeology of Magic in Later Medieval BurialsMedieval Archaeology. 52: 119-159. (Full article).

McIntyre, L. & Bruce, G. 2010. Excavating All Saints: A Medieval Church Rediscovered. Current Archaeology. 245: 30-37. (Full article).

Merrifield, R. 1987. The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. London: B.T. Batsford.

Platonov, A. 2010. The Foundation Pit. London: Vintage.