A trio of deserters stumble through a hedge row as a battle between royalists and parliamentarians reaches a fever pitch. One of the men, Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) is a soldier while the third is a scholar on a separate mission for his master. Another of the soldiers, announced as dead by a looter, coughs and sits up and joins the pair. He is a simpleton who refers to everyone as friend and is only referred to as friend (Richard Glover). They are greeted by an affable highway man who invites them to an ale house as he loots the dead. Along the way the rogue, Cutler (Ryan Pope), shows himself to be much more sinister than he represented. There is no ale house. The three are to be used for labor in the field. The first thing they must do is find Cutler’s master who has concealed himself within the confines of the field.
Once O’Neil (Michael Smiley) is revealed from hiding in some metaphysical manner involving a pole, some rope and the three bitching draftees he asserts his power over the rest. Cutler is shown as his lieutenant who deftly wields the power relegated to him as long as he has an advantage over his charges and orders from his boss.
The apprentice alchemist Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) recognizes O’Neil as the rogue apprentice his master has sent him to capture. The two soldiers are still under the impression that the ale house lies in their future but they are to provide the manual labor for O’Neil as he seeks the field’s hidden treasure. Whitehead is tortured for what seems like an interminable time as his scream comes from within O’Neil’s tent as Cutler keeps the others outside. He eventually emerges running from the tent with wild eyes and a maniacal grin as O’Neil is led by the length of rope around Whitehead’s neck. The scene is supremely disturbing as he runs in slow motion while Cutler and the two soldiers stand in tableau.
The coward Whitehead is no longer his own man and is completely under the thrall of the evil O’Neil. Cutler bullies the others as they dig for the treasure O’Neil covets. The friendly soldier is shot dead by Cutler and Jacob is left to dig alone. O’Neil starts to lose control of his men as the coward begins to gain his spine. Cutler fails him for the last time and O’Neil orders him to “Open your mouth and let the Devil in” as he blasts his head off. Jacob and Whitehead must face the Devil with little in the way of strength but a lot in the way of the loyalty and friendship the captives acquired for each other. Like Lazarus, Friend rises from the dead a second time and takes up a pike to fight the Devil O’Neil and he is slain for a third time. Jacob is gravely wounded and injures O’Neil in return allowing Whitehead to finish the fight. Whitehead returns to the battlefield looking every bit the soldier. He doffs all of his belligerent accoutrement and returns to the dueling armies unarmed but no longer a coward.
Ben Wheatley’s film has a lot of threads running throughout. In the very offing Whitehead sees the silhouettes of two men in the fog and Cutler asks, “What do you see?” Whitehead replies “Nothing. Perhaps only shadows.” Friend even thinks God is punishing them for “Everything.” The soldiers are archetypes: Jacob is the common man and serves as the viewer’s sensibility as he asks the questions that need to be asked. Friend is ever the optimist. He sees all of the good in the world despite the devastation going on about him and possesses the courage of one so selfless. He has never met anyone that he didn’t try to like which makes Cutler’s execution of him all the more heart wrenching. Cutler serves as the consummate soldier and the cog in the machinery that drives civilization. He does what he’s told, when he’s told and with what he is given. O’Neil is the icon of greed and ill gotten power and may well be the Devil in this field. Whitehead is the down-trodden and tortured soul. Forced to do the will of others though it goes against his own. He is also the strangely cast hero in this crew of anti-heroes and must rise to the challenge. There is no physical treasure found but Whitehead did find friendship and courage in the fog shrouded field, perhaps those were the treasures O’Neil was seeking for himself? I am certain there is much more going on that I do not grasp as I am not an Englishman, so check it out to see if anything in it speaks to you.
The film is shot in black and white. Though the movie covers a lot of grey area the only grey in the picture is that of the smoke and fog of war. There are empty frames of black from time to time providing punctuation to the film. The high spots are the stunning tableaux that pause the film, yet effectively continue the narrative. The costumes look amazing and all of the cast acquit themselves well. I am fairly sure that this film will not get the level of attention that KILL LIST did in the US and that is a damnable shame as though this is vastly different from KILL LIST and SIGHTSEERS I believe it is his best work to date. The journey is a truly horrifying fever dream into the psyche of men.
The A2 BD from Film4 is loaded with special features. Pete Tombs interviews director Ben Wheatley and they discuss the production of A FIELD IN ENGLAND. The commentary track features Wheatley, producer Andy Stark and sound designer Martin and there is a whole slew of featurettes covering everything from the acting, cinematography, editing, influences, location etc… The disc is absolutely loaded. Brace yourself for some severe strangeness and watch the trailer below.