A Field in England defies easy categorisation – and that is its glory. Ben Wheatley's English Civil War drama/horror picture is a wondrously strange affair that bends genre rules.
Shooting in black and white, Wheatley eschews the pomp and formality of most costume films, instead offering a dirty, grunt's eye of the historical period he is depicting. The action here, as the title makes clear, is hyper-localised – the film is set almost entirely within a single muddy field.
Reece Shearsmith plays Whitehead, a well-spoken but cowardly figure who had been on a mission to discover the alchemist O'Neil (Michael Smiley) before running away. By a neat irony, he and some other stragglers are kidnapped by O'Neil (Michael Smiley). They are set to work in a field thought to hold a "great treasure". O'Neil thinks Whitehead's divining powers can help him find it.
The film-maker's boldest stroke is to introduce a strong psychedelic element to the storytelling. Around the rim of the field are magic mushrooms which the characters consume with predictably phantasmagoric results. We may be in Civil War England but some of the trippier sequences here rekindle memories of Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg's swinging London-set Performance.
Wheatley's macabre and funny previous film, Sightseers, was undermined by its cross-referencing of other movies and its casual sadism. Thankfully, here, he is not trying to hide behind sardonic British humour. There are rough patches. In its weaker moments, the film does resemble old Comic Strip Presents... skits on movie genres. Nonetheless, once Michael Smiley's alchemist O'Neil hoves into view, the film-making takes on a new intensity. O'Neil dresses exactly like Vincent Price's equally devilish character in Michael Reeves's Witchfinder General (1968). Influential horror historian David Pirie's description of Vincent Price as "a superb presence of inexorable vindictiveness around which the other characters move with fascinated repulsion" could equally well apply to Smiley's O'Neil.
What is most refreshing about the film is its utterly offbeat quality. This is not another British project made to formulaic guidelines. Even the bloody final battle – which seems a bit like a spaghetti Western shootout transplanted to 17th-century rural England – confounds our expectations.
Video: WARNING - This clip contains plot spoilers