“A FIELD IN ENGLAND” (TIFF Movie Review)
With only a handful of movies, writer/director Ben Wheatley has already established himself as one of the finest filmmakers of his generation. Always toeing genre lines, his greatest achievement thus far was probably KILL LIST, a viscous hit man movie transformed into occult horror with one of the most disturbing finale twists since his obvious influence THE WICKER MAN. The genre journalists all immediately demanded that he dabble in horror again and now he kind of has with the twisted art house hallucinogen he calls A FIELD IN ENGLAND. Like KILL LIST, the movie is not pure horror, but it does boast some of the most disturbing images destined to flicker across screens this year.
The film takes place in Civil War-era England where a handful of soldiers have fled the front lines and find themselves in an empty field that would be creepy without black and white photography, but only benefits from that wise artistic choice. There they are captured by the imposingly mysterious O’Neil (Wheatley vet Michael Smiley who also earned Brit-cult status on TV projects like SPACED and BLACK MIRROR), who is convinced there is treasure to be found in the field and forces them to search for it through torture and intimidation. Then there are the mushrooms on the field that offer the group its only sustenance and also just might explain why they’re behaving so strangely.
So we have a film pitched somewhere between WITCHFINDER GENERAL and WAITING FOR GODOT with everything that implies, and an incredible seizure-inducing hallucination sequence for good measure. What it all represents is up for debate and that’s half the fun, but the visceral experience is more than enough to support the ambiguity. Wheatley has an undeniable gift for creating intense atmosphere and has a way with actors. Smiley is at his grizzled best, but the finest player in the cast is Reece Shearsmith. Best known for his perverse character work and dark horror comedy in THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN and PSYCHOVILLE, Shearsmith has always clearly been a gifted performer, but his cult comedy origins prevented much serious appraisal. Stripped entirely of his comedic chops, Shearsmith puts himself out there as an alchemist’s assistant driven to madness and gives a remarkable performance. He’s been riffing on this brand of overwrought genre movie character for years in his comedy and given a chance to play it straight for once, he delivers.
Visually, Wheately sticks to his usual, carefully composed handheld style for most of the proceedings, elevating it only for the aforementioned hallucination sequence and a handful of unsettling tableaus. It’s a visually stunning work that’s also ingeniously economic given that the film is composed of a few actors, costumes, and an empty field. A FIELD IN ENGLAND will never play for the masses, so Wheatley was clever to make it cheaply enough that it will never have to. However, those tempted by the rare pleasures of philosophical art horror in a historical British setting will be thrilled. Good thing too, because the chances of anyone dabbling in that genre again are about as good as Wheatley directing the next FAST & FURIOUS movie (though admittedly, that could be pretty great).