Field in England, AReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/11/14 23:47:51
Having an annual pass to the Brattle Theater means that it's no big deal to come back the next night when the attempt to see three movies after a full day in the office means that something gets napped through. That bit of zoning-out during my first attempt to watch "A Field in England" should not be laid at the movie's feet; after all, even knowing the end, I wanted to catch the whole thing the next day, and doing so cost it none of its strange appeal.The audience is thrown right into its odd world as academically-inclined servant Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) pleads that he needs more time to complete his mission on the edge of a battle during the English Civil War. The man threatening him is killed, and he joins with the soldiers deserting and/or cut off from their armies - Cutler (Ryan Pope), Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), and Friend (Richard Glover) - to rest at a pub one knows. On the way, they stumble across Whitehead's quarry, but this O'Neil (Michael Smiley) appears to have some occult power as well as knowledge of a treasure hidden somewhere within the seemingly endless field.
Director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump have never been ones to waste much time getting the audience into a story and they don't start here, introducing their characters in rapid succession and having them tell each other what the audience needs to know to get an idea of the circumstances without it ever seeming like a targeted release of information. It's a snappy, often witty way to get the viewer into the picture, and it never feels nearly as aimless as some movies whose makers try that structure do (including, arguably, Wheatley's own Down Terrace). Which is good, because once O'Neil shows up, things start happening pretty quickly, and it wouldn't do for a movie that's already starting to get weird to leave the audience completely at sea.
That never happens, happily, because in the handful of movies Wheatley has made, he's improved as a storyteller by leaps and bounds - and prior caveat aside, Down Terrace wasn't a bad place to start. He and Jump (both also credited as editors) will make great leaps over the boring parts of the story or only give the audience a quick glimpse of an important detail, but it seldom feels like the one in Kill List that lost people. They fill the movie with strange dark humor, but only hit the "too nasty to be funny" threshold once or twice, and never have the gags undercut the spooky story. Wheatley uses cinematographer Laurie Rose's black-and-white photography very nicely, too, never making the world of the film look unreal but letting the gray cat of the sky, the bleached whiteness of the field, and the barrier-forming dark of the hedge wall make it feel like a space outside the normal world.
That fairly simple visual style serves the film well. There are no grandiose special effects for the film's sojourns into sorcery or practical metaphysics ("occult" really is the proper term, as forces might be hidden while the effect is felt), and while Wheatley is not above a stylish flourish when one is appropriate, they don't use color to get an easy jolt during an hallucinogenic sequence near the end. What's also kind of amazing is that this trippy sequence happens right next to action that is as cleanly-shoot (though bloody in result) as any one will see, fantastically tense and thrilling.
Great action is not necessarily what one would expect from a movie built around Whitehead, a self-described coward who knows nothing of weapons. Reece Shearsmith goes to town in the role, a hilariously feminine presence among the all-male cast that swerves from naive gentility to utter mania when necessary. It's a tremendously entertaining performance with pathos underneath the weird comedy. It's a fun contrast to Michael Smiley as O'Neil, a proper villain with growling, confident panache (in some ways just as out of place amid the grubby cast, but with style). They're a fine pair of complementary performances, as are Peter Ferdinando and Richard Glover as the cranky and laid-back deserters who provide manpower and color to the events.Both the cast and crew are small and capable, as you might expect with such a risky proposition as black-and-white period surreal horror/fantasy/whatever. But for all that "A Field in England" is an unusual sort of picture, it plays surprisingly smoothly, the sort of impressive performance despite a high degree of difficulty that marks Ben Wheatley as a director to be reckoned with.
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