Michael Smiley plays a mysterious psychopath in Ben Wheatley's 17th century-set "A Field in England." Credit: Nick Gillespie
'A Field in England' Director: Ben Wheatley Stars: Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley Rating: R 3 (out of 5) Globes
The truly new is never easy to appreciate when it first comes around. People require paradigms to understand anything, be it art or simple communication. The genuinely original lies well outside those boundaries and tends to not be admired till well after it’s premiered to invariable hisses and boos. (One notable exception would be “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a sui generis space art film that luckily hit a major mainstream nerve.)
This is not to say that “A Field in England” — a legitimate whatzit that defies description, from its style to its basic plot — is destined for future masterpiece status. It’s simply hard to get a lock on. Is what it’s doing — whatever THAT is — novel? Or is it a failed experiment that gives the illusion of truly progressive, outside-the-box creativity?
Here’s the curious set-up: It’s the 17th Century during the English Civil War. During a messy skirmish that’s mostly off-screen, four men — chief among them a cowardly “alchemist’s assistant,” Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith — run off through a hedge, hoping to find an inn to get grub and beer instead of fight. Instead they run afoul of O’Neill (Michael Smiley), a mysterious, possibly Satanic thief. He tells them treasure is buried in the massive, scarily open field that’s become their not very concealing hideout. Wielding a sinister authority over his prey, he forces Whitehead to use his apparent mystical abilities as the Ye Olde England version of a human metal detector.
If this doesn’t get the pulse pounding, there are two elements that should put us on edge. The one is the pre-credit warning about “flashing images and stroboscopic sequences.” The other is the director, Ben Wheatley. Last seen with “Sightseers,” a twist on the rom-com in which two mousy lovers discover they each have a yen for casual homicide, he’s made his name with gory violence, often involving head trauma. “Kill List,” his sophomore effort, made room for a scene where a hammer repeatedly met an old man’s head.
Both of these promises aren’t fulfilled till later in the narrative, although neither is as severe as you may expect. A tripping sequence is straight-out of a ‘60s sloppy attempt at approximating the effects of drug use — only in black-and-white, not “psychedelic color,” which is somewhat novel.
But one of Wheatley’s other gifts is for long scenes of chatter that don’t seem to go anywhere, thus lowering our guard — and making the shocks that come all the more bluntly, brutally effective. “Kill List” descended into intentionally inscrutable madness, which trick “A Field in England” — written by Wheatley’s wife Amy Jump, who also serves as his very precise editor — borrows. It’s not clear why certain plot developments occur. Still, one basically gets the gyst. It’s a mindf— that only somewhat f—s your mind, and doesn’t appear to deepen on a second spin.
The oddest thing, though, is how pleasurable it is. Even counting the quaint English countryside drives that filled up the space between cranium collapses in “Sightseers” — and even considering that this is about a psychopath lording over four weak-willed deserters in a cruel and red-in-tooth-and-claw age — this is the nicest film Wheatley has yet made. (This doesn’t say much, admittedly.) Most of it is Renaissance Faire dress-up and dense banter, some of it very funny when you can make it out amidst the shouting. It gets a lot of mileage out of Richard Glover’s sweet simpleton.
But there’s also Shearsmith. He gets Wheatley’s comic-gory-macabre tone, no less because he’s a member of the troupe The League of Gentlemen, whose TV show melds those three tones even better than Wheatley has. But the more jagged, imperfect “A Field in England” is welcome, too. And maybe it will look even better in thirty years.