Anyone who has ever sweated blood in an editing suite knows how difficult it is to take raw images and, though cutting and fine tuning, make something that resonates and has meaning and gives insight into what makes us human, or something less than human.
In A Field in England director Ben Wheatley shows himself to be a highly skilled editor and technician – a craftsman of film on a limited budget, and there is much to admire in this black and white imagining that tries to make us travel back in time to the English civil war when magic, science and religion were still far from clearly defined.
The film has a curious and disturbing internal logic that works in the darkened cinema, or living room, depending on where you choose to view it. That logic tends to shatter in the cold light of day when our twenty-first century minds demand explanation and tweetable clarity.
Let’s get this out-of-the-way – one of the most appealing things about A Field in England is the unique way it’s being distributed across all platforms, including a Film 4 TV broadcast on the same day as the cinema and DVD releases. A bold move that has attracted much attention and shows the way many movies could be premiered from now on.
The film has a curious and disturbing internal logic that works in the darkened cinema, or living room, depending on where you choose to view it.
Thanks to the innovative distribution strategy you should have little trouble seeing A Field in England no matter where you live if you haven’t seen it already, but I’d also recommend you catch up with the Masterclass of the making of the film and you’ll find a Vimeo link to that below.
There are some arresting moments and sequences in the film – the unusual tableaux seem to suit the theatre-in-a-field format and the umbilical rope-pulling scenes are both darkly disturbing and Beckettian in their absurdity. There are cultural references to the Civil War era and the comment: ‘it does not surprise me that the devil is an Irishman – I thought perhaps a little taller,’ is a cultural and overtly racist comment that I imagine having much currency at the time, especially as one of the central characters is the Irishman O’Neill.
There’s a lot to admire in the technical aspects of this monochrome story that is however less dense and slighter than its cinematic ambition. When Onibaba is referenced in the Masterclass documentary you start to see the relatively modest achievement of Weatley’s work in comparison, for while Onibaba like A Field in England is a black and white film that makes special use of a singular location, the former is also one of the twentieth century’s greatest movie achievements that sears the memory and exposes the soul.
There are the understandable weaknesses in a script conceived for one location and one space which, for reasons of budget and efficiency, is set outdoors with no interiors. It’s perhaps the lack of physical interiors that tends to conceal rather than reveal the interior lives of the characters.
‘I think I have worked out what God is punishing us for. Everything,’ says Friend as he rolls around in the dirt not for the first time. Maybe God punishes filmmakers for not having larger budgets, but this film still does more with less and stands above other movies with bloated budgets and insipid Hollywood plot lines. Although confined to one location A Field in England travels far with limited resources.