Ben Wheatley, 90 mins, 15

Jonathan Romney on A Field in England: Once upon a time in the Civil War

Ben Wheatley’s 17th-century freak-out is a cinematic rarity: a truly strange British film

While we wait for the next film by oddball British director Ben Wheatley, entitled Freakshift, it occurs that all his films operate a freaky shift – between genres, that is. His no-budget debut Down Terrace turned from family comedy to brutal gang drama; in Kill List, a hitman thriller veered into occult horror; Sightseers slipped between sitcom domesticity and serial-killer realism. Wheatley’s fourth feature A Field in England is his most unclassifiable yet, blending historical drama, 1960s psychedelia and formal experimentation. (It’s also the first film ever to be released similtaneously on every platform: in cinemas, on free TV, on DVD and video-on-demand.)

Written by Wheatley’s wife and regular collaborator Amy Jump, the film concerns a mysterious hidden treasure – although by the end, I was no wiser about what it was, and some may feel that A Field in England promises more of a payoff than it yields. But what makes it frustrating is also its source of fascination – for this is that hyper-rare object, a genuinely strange British film.

The story takes place during the English Civil War, on the fringes of a battle – which smoke and sound tell us is happening just off-screen, in the next field. Staggering through a hedge to what he hopes is safety, a nervous man named Whitehead (League of Gentlemen alumnus Reece Shearsmith) encounters two rough types, Cutler (Ryan Pope) and Jacob (Richard Ferdinando), and Friend, a placid mumbler (Richard Glover, in the sort of headgear usually seen on peasants in Bruegel paintings).

What happens at the start is somewhat veiled in the fog, not of war, but of frantic direction. The screenplay contains much juicy period dialogue, although the gist is often lost amid hectic cuts, drunken camera moves and the men’s habit of grabbing each other by the throat. By the time things calm down, we’ve learned that the grandiloquent Whitehead is the servant of an alchemist, sent on an urgent mission. The group eventually encounters O’Neil (a sinister Michael Smiley), the very man Whitehead seeks. The dark arts are discussed and seemingly practised. Now and then, the characters abruptly freeze into tableaux vivants, which the camera studies, detail by detail.

Then comes a genuinely arresting moment. Something horrible happens to Whitehead inside O’Neil’s tent – we can only guess what, but it causes him to scream, at nerve-racking length. Then, in a long slow- motion take, Whitehead staggers out, his face sporting a deranged rictus. It’s the most terrifying special effect I’ve seen for ages, and all it involves is an actor grinning.

Wheatley and Jump, who co-edited the film, later ignite their big firework display. It’s a frenetic “trip” sequence (enduced by mushroom guzzling), a stroboscopic pandemonium of mirror images, flash cuts, bursts of light: a sort of English outdoors version of the “Stargate” sequence in Kubrick’s 2001 ....

A Field in England irresistibly sets you playing the “What if?” game. What if, instead of making Performance in 1970, Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg had dramatised the Battle of Naseby from the same hallucinatory perspective? What if Sergio Leone had had to shoot his Westerns for two bob in rainy Surrey? As befits the title, A Field in England suggests the ghosts of many films clustered in a baleful meadow: e.g. the revered Witchfinder General, with a dash of shamanistic screwball auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky and echoes of the wild fringes of UK ruralism, such as Andrew Kötting’s mud-steeped This Filthy Earth.

The narrative never quite comes into focus, and I suspect was never intended to. The sharpest moments of clarity come from Jump’s dialogue – notably, a deliciously perverse confession from Friend, or one-liners such as: “Last thing I ’et was a stoat – Welsh one at that.” Alongside the furious visual panache and the ominous, often abstract beauty of Laurie Rose’s black-and-white photography, one of the film’s most striking qualities is its address to our ears.  In Martin Pavey’s sound design, everything floats unmoored, dialogue has the same sonic status as the wind or the eerie music (martial drums, electronic noise, the delicate folk ballad that Friend sings).

What impresses about all Wheatley’s features is their provisional, playful nature, more like punk singles than polished albums. Flawed as it is, A Field in England is some achievement, drumming up an earthly inferno out of next to nothing – dirt and wind, a patch of land, some blokes with scraggy beards. The result, in a minor-key fashion, is a blast – Apocalypse Now among the hedgerows.

ALSO SHOWING

Paradise: Faith (113 mins, 18)

The second in Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s interlocking Paradise trilogy (the third is out next month) tells the story of a devout Catholic hospital worker (Maria Hofstätter) who clashes with her paraplegic Muslim husband following his return home after two years away.

Bula Quo! (90 mins, PG)

It’s the Spinal Tap of action movies: a high-octane thrill ride that celebrates Status Quo’s 50th anniversary and imagines the band’s Rick Parfitt and Francis Rossi on the run from a murderous Fijian gambling ring. The cast also  includes Craig Fairbrass, aka “Dirty Dan” from Eastenders and  Jon Lovitz, naturally.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (88 mins, 18)

Documentary about the Russian feminist punk collective cum protest movement figureheads.

Hugh Montgomery

NEXT WEEK It’s monsters vs robots in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be Lonely Island's second Hollywood venture following their 2007 film Hot Rod
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Day-Lewis stars in the movie There Will Be Blood
music
Arts and Entertainment
Brush with greatness: the artist Norman Cornish in 1999
art
Life and Style
Stress less: relaxation techniques can help focus the mind and put problems in context
art
Arts and Entertainment

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment