Did you know that there was an English Civil War in the middle of the 17th century? I had no idea, but apparently from 1642 to 1651, there were three sets of battles between those who followed the king and those who believed in a parliamentarian system. In the end, parliamentary won out, leading to the system that currently exists today. In the process, at least 100,000 people were killed.
All pretty interesting stuff, but I learned none of it from A Field in England, a historical thriller ostensibly set during that time period. In fact, I didn’t learn anything from the film, other than the limits of my attention span.
A Field in England
Director: Ben Wheatley
Release Date: February 7, 2014 (VOD/Limited Theatrical)
Country: United Kingdom
A Field in England is set during a battle, but not really on a battlefield. Beyond the opening moments, there’s nothing really to indicate that any kind of war is even going on. If they weren’t holding guns, it would be extremely easy to forget about the supposed conflict surrounding them. Even the big shootout that ends the film lacks any sort of war-like power, because it’s between characters who have been with each other for a while, not from the entrance of a new faction looking for blood. Everything is very insular, focusing on four characters with two others in lesser roles.
From the frequent “Get down”s, it seemed like they were supposed to be hiding in the grass from an unseen enemy, but because that enemy never rears its ugly head, it seems like a weird formality. There aren’t even gunshots or shouts in the background. They’re getting down because the director told them to, not because they have any need.
What that all adds up to is something extremely boring. Which is a problem, because this is a film that demands your attention while doing everything in its power to lose it. For 90-ish minutes, basically nothing is happening, and the entirety of the film’s intrigue comes from the audiovisual presentation rather than the thing itself. Visually, it’s bizarre, and I don’t mean really mean that in a good way. The opening warns of a stroboscopic sequence (a word I had never seen before), but for a long while, I had no idea what that was supposed to mean. Early on, takes are long and uninteresting. People stare at things and talk. There are tableaus. Tableaus! At several points in the film, everybody just stops moving and the camera cuts between them for a minute or two. It’s every bit as uninteresting as it sounds.
Plus, A Field in England does nothing to feel like a historical thriller. The period costumes and weapons are all well and good, but it feels more like a filmed reenactment than something actually set in the past. A big part of this is due to the decision to release the film in black-and-white. There’s something inherently bizarre about a black-and-white film shot digitally. It looks cheap, like it’s trying to replicate some old-timey feel without doing any work. Sometimes film grain is added in post, or the gain is jacked up in-camera, to give it a film-stock feel to push its appearance a bit further into the past, but there’s nothing like that here. It’s a pristine, completely desaturated image. And it stops being interesting immediately.
At one point, a characters says something like “Look at the colors!” and I wished that I could; it probably would have made the film a bit more bearable to sit through. Maybe the lack of color and action says something about the monotony of war, or maybe director Ben Wheatley is just weird.
Which I would believe, because it finally struck me during the stroboscopic sequence (fueled by hallucinogenic mushrooms) why I disliked the movie so much: because it’s an experimental film masquerading as a narrative. The story doesn’t make sense because there is no story. The first half of the film has the pretense of a narrative, but that disappears and then it just goes crazy. And when I realized that, I didn’t start to like A Field in England, but I finally understood what I was watching. I have no idea what it means or what the images were trying to tell me, but when it hit me that that may have been the point, I was willing to forgive it, just a little bit.
I don’t like experimental films, but I can appreciate their existence. What A Field in England does with its resurrecting characters and tableaus and poorly-done black-and-white and horrendously long moment where the soundtrack is entirely screams (if I had been in a theater where I couldn’t turn the volume down, I probably would have gone more insane than the screaming character) is make an unpleasant experience that keeps the viewer constantly at arm’s length. And if that’s the point, then fine. It’s not going to make me like the movie, but it will subdue my rage just a little bit.