Ben Wheatley | 90 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15
Much was written about A Field in England at the time of its release, so if you frequent the right places online or in the press you can’t’ve missed it. Nonetheless, there’s a good chance you’ll have heard of it more for its release format(s) than for anything in the film itself: the fourth feature in just five years from new British critical darling Ben Wheatley, it was released to cinemas, DVD, Blu-ray, download, video-on-demand, and shown on free TV all on the same day, a first for British cinema. Any casual viewers who checked it out for that reason were in for a shock, because this certainly isn’t an easily-digested mainstream experience.
During a battle in the English Civil War, a group of men find themselves in a deserted field. One of their number lures them on with the promise of a pub, but instead leads them into a psychotropic nightmarish hunt for some artefact of magical power, or something. I mean, that’s kinda the plot, but I’m not sure how much “the plot” matters. There is a story, clearly; and it’s a little opaque, clearly; but the mood is more the point, I think. This is a horror movie (if you will) that doesn’t set out to make you jump or look over your shoulder or show you squirting blood, but instead seeks to unsettle you, to put you at unease, to subtly chill you.
That very subtlety leads some viewers to write this kind of movie off — and fair enough, because if you’re searching for any kind of mass acceptance you don’t do it with a black-and-white film about a few blokes in period dress running around a field doing weird, inexplicable things. Though you might top it off with a shoot-out that is arguably one of the year’s best action sequences, something Wheatley and co do do. And without making it feel tonally out of place, either. Impressive. In keeping but even more memorable is the moment you’ve surely heard about — “when he comes out of the tent with that look on his face”. I wasn’t able to watch the film until something like 24 hours after its Big Premiere, by which time I’d already heard everyone talk about that, and yet it was still uncomfortably uncanny. Kudos, Reece Shearsmith, you’re an odd’un.
Part of the unusual release strategy was an online (and on-disc, with the BD at least) “masterclass” about the making of the film. At the time, I commented on Twitter that the “much-touted… masterclass strikes me as standard making-of. Not uninteresting, but something on what it’s ABOUT would be nice,” and received a reply from the film’s cinematographer, Laurie Rose (who has done excellent, striking work here, incidentally), to suggest that “maybe that’s what YOU bring to it?” Well, OK… up to a point. I mean, surely the makers intended some reading, and perhaps the director’s commentary would have been the place to share it? Maybe I was just looking for easy answers when I shouldn’t have been, but it’s a tricky film to read.
In terms of the new funding models and simultaneous multi-format release and all that… well, it depends what their goals were. If it was to make interesting, alternative, minority-interest films… fantastic, they’ve done it — and got a remarkable amount of interest in the process. If it was meant to be a way of turning a profit, or of reaching a bigger audience… well, it succeeded this time — but how many of those viewers are going to come back? A Field in England is definitely the kind of film that appeals to some people, but it is defiantly not “mainstream cinema”. No bad thing, and something that should be encouraged, supported and funded in some way; but however you do it, it’s not going to continuously bring in big bucks.
Not an easy film, then, and at times uncomfortable to watch for all the wrong reasons (when you have no idea what’s meant to be going on, it does go on a bit). But it’s a memorable one, for more reasons than its experimental release strategy.
A Field in England is on Channel 4 tonight at 12:20am.
This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2013. Read more here.