“A Field in England” mixes folk, psychedelia and horror
A field in England (2013) is Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s most daringly experimental yet neglected film. As an alchemical potion of historical drama, psychedelia, formal experimentation, occultism, and popular horror, it eschews any basic generic classification. A field is well on its way to establishing itself as a cult classic in all its monochromatic glory.
Parachuted into a battlefield smoked by English Civil War muskets, we follow a disorganized group ranging from a naive astrologer to war-weary soldiers. Rather than continue fighting, they band together to find a nearby tavern. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Cutler (Ryan Pope), the most veteran of the soldiers, starts slipping magic mushrooms – along with the not-so-magical ones – into a stew.
Enter O’Neil (Michael Smiley): an alchemist rival to Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) with cut lips and a dry tongue. Vain, overbearing and amoral, he is the antithesis of Whitehead. Where Whitehead serves, O’Neil rebels, stealing valuable documents on the occult from their common master in a mercenary attempt to guess the whereabouts of the treasure in that area in England. The cunning O’Neil and his sidekick Cutler compel Whitehead and the soldiers to discover these riches.
“An anarchic atmosphere reigns”
Historically, the English Civil War was a time of brutality, but also of unearthing and revolution. A field recreates that sensation, filled with visual metaphors of rotation, gyration and winding. An anarchic atmosphere prevails.
“The Puritans were trying to root out paganism and magic from Catholicism,” Wheatley dissects of Cromwellian times, “they were killing God because they were killing the king, the representative of God. They wrote their own rules.” This feeling is bright in A field, presenting England as a country plagued by war, doubt and anguish; a place of radical uncertainty — a country withdrawn into itself.
Whitehead first appears cowardly, servile, and weak-willed; a worshiper of masters, whether divine or secular. This had provided stability until he crossed paths with O’Neil. Here Whitehead part ways: Forced to use the occult practice of divination to find the treasure and feed O’Neil’s gluttony, he betrays his Christian morals. Whitehead and the soldiers are forced to dig once the treasure is guessed.
Digging and declaiming begins. The statement “I am my own man” is muttered between the bullied soldiers. Digging and ranting – visual metaphors that relate, historically, to Civil War counterculture splinter groups. The Diggers, led by Gerald Winstanley, were a proto-socialist group, seizing closed land for the masses. The Ranters were more extreme—early anarchists who saw free love, smoking, and swearing as viable paths to personal and spiritual liberation. Wheatley taps into these groundbreaking contextual vibes using these visual metaphors.
Whitehead goes from slave to chief, escaping the dug pit and O’Neil. As he crawls towards a row of freedom mushrooms, he begins to proclaim his new mission: “to chew on all the bad intentions inflicted by men like you on men like me.” Whitehead devours a copious amount of mushrooms; O’Neil gradually realizes that he has lost all authority, unintelligible to what has been unleashed.
“A spectacular and trippy dive into historical revolution and consciousness”
What follows can only be described as the most spectacular trip scene in the history of psychedelic cinema. Wheatley uses it to play “with the persistence of vision” – with two streams of twelve frames, the “brain begins to split in two [as] there is a limit to what you can absorb”. A field is one of a group of films that explored alternate narratives of the Civil War with the theme and in the context of psychedelics. Likewise, Thomas Clay Fanny Lye released (2019) explores issues of hallucinogens, radical politics and the sexual politics of Cromwellian England.
Wheatley characterizes the trip scene as a “regurgitation” of Whitehead’s memory and the film. Everything is being stirred up, unearthed, and new realities and understandings are being built. Wheatley successfully uses this experimental method to “get the audience into that mindset”.
Thanks to this, Whitehead achieves his goal. The final scene of the journey is two Whiteheads, reflected on either side, appearing to drift away from each other until they are dragged together in the middle where they are finally merged. A perfect visual metaphor for Whitehead’s new manifestation as a complete subject, his “own man”.
“It’s about revolution and trying to find a truth,” concludes Wheatley. Within the historical context of the revolution is the individual and internal Whitehead insurrection. A metamorphosed hero, he is now a complete subject, alchemically transmuted. Back through the hedge on the battlefield, Whitehead is now presented as masked, assured, tired and heroic. We wonder what exactly this field in England is – certainly more than just a pastoral landscape. It is a space of magic, of transformation, of transmuting dust into gold, of self-discovery; a place igniting the rebellious undercurrents of the Civil War and its impact on the individual psyche. It is perhaps a metaphysical field that we all need to visit – at least once.
A spectacular and trippy dive into historical revolution and consciousness – Ben Wheatley & Amy Jump’s A field in England is an essential and cult classic of modern British cinema.
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