Madness is my greatest fear. Logically I know the odds of being attacked by a shark or stalked by serial killer are in fact quite low. When films depict those unlikely threats, I have fun suspending my disbelief and going along with those characters on their ride of fear. But insanity is a different sort of threat all together. Who is to say that I won’t just flip my lid one day and lose control? I don’t even have a way to prove that I’m sane at this very moment, let alone guarantee that I’ll be able to maintain what little composure I have for the rest of my life. Madness feels like a very real threat to my life and livelihood, and films that show a character’s plummet into their own insanity can be the most effective way to bring me close to true horror.
This is not to say that A FIELD IN ENGLAND is a horror film. I would not even argue that the film itself is about insanity. I will say that the descent of one character’s mind into madness is a haunting experience, and it has stayed with me for months after seeing the film.
A FIELD IN ENGLAND’s title refers to the setting of the film. After going AWOL from a battle in the 17th century English civil war, a band of defectors go out in search of a drink. They have heard that there is a nearby watering hole and attempt to cross the aforementioned field to find some rest. In this field the men encounter an alchemist. This alchemist holds them hostage in the field, making them do his bidding while he schemes of ways to steal a rival alchemist’s potions. Upon learning that the field may offer riches, he forces them all to dig and toil as his slaves.
To relay the plot OF A FIELD IN ENGLAND and to then presume that the film is only a vehicle for that plot is a disservice to both the filmmaker and the audience. The film is so much more the plot lets on. At a point in the field the story spins and takes a major turn into the psychedelic.
Having put a charm onto one of the defecting men, the alchemist hopes to tap into the man’s subconscious and find the field’s treasure. At this point, the man emerges from the tent looking all but inhuman. His eyes are possessed. His lips snarl away from his teeth. He is bound in rope, except for his legs, as the alchemist knew that what he was doing to this man would make his unstable and unwieldy. It is this image of this man which haunts me to this day. This animalistic performance, coupled with the stark black and white images and the unnatural soundtrack is terror. Looking at that man exposes every fear I have of insanity. His humanity has been stripped away by the alchemist and he has been left as a shadow of himself; a raging, violent shadow.
Director Ben Wheatley strikes every note perfectly in the film. The vulgar but period appropriate dialogue between the soldiers is biting and hilarious. Their developing relationships throughout the film are interesting to track and analyze. The film itself is beautiful. Wheatley even stops to highlight the scenery by occasionally having the men pose as if they were about to be immortalized on the canvas of a painter. These dioramas interrupt the film throughout its running time and put further emphasis on the historic significance of their field.
Wheatley has very quickly emerged as a new director the world needs to pay attention to. Two of his recent films, SIGHTSEERS and KILL LIST, easily made my year end top ten lists, and I suspect A FIELD IN ENGLAND will end up there as well. Notably, Wheatley does not seem to have a style of film that defines him. SIGHTSEERS is a hilarious, very dark comedy. KILL LIST is one of the best horror thrillers I have seen in the past five years. A FIELD IN ENGLAND is a black and white psychedelic period film, with art-house pacing. In fact, the only thing these three films have in common is that they are each one of the best recent films in their respective genres.
Without foraying too deeply into the metaphors of the field (it could be argued easily that a fenceless field traps these men like madness can trap the mind) it is clear that the film is saying far more than it lets on initially. Films that keep you thinking and piecing together all of the elements are favorites of mine. But my true joy in A FIELD IN ENGLAND is seeing the immersive madness of that stricken man. Keeping this horror on screen, and out of my own head, helps me confirm that I have not succumbed to those demons yet.