CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS, MAYBE
Hmmmm. Well, fair play to Film 4: they got people talking about this. The Internet has been full of it: about Ben Wheatley's previous films (Sightseers is a recent DVD release, Down Terrace - which I still haven't seen - was on the telly again, and wasn't Kill List brilliant?), about the genuinely intriguing trailer, about the day-date release strategy. Well, Sightseers was alright, but Kill List was certainly a disappointment and nothing like the bright and shining renaissance of British horror cinema it was touted as: it was more like a Danny Dyer remake of A Serbian Film that got steadily more absurd and less likable as it went on. Now here's a black-and-white psychedelic independent microbudget Civil War arthouse horror movie which gets points for ticking a lot of boxes but loses them for being needlessly arty and "difficult" and frankly boring.
On a narrative level, A Field In England concerns an assorted handful of Civil War soldiers who leave the battle and head for a nearby alehouse: among them is alchemist Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) who is forced to divine buried treasure for evil O'Neil (Michael Smiley). They find something, but what? Or do they ever make it that far, as they gorged themselves on wild mushrooms and may well have hallucinated everything?
Shot in very stylish black-and-white, its landscapes and facial closeups are undeniably terrific to look at. But as a piece of drama, as a piece of storytelling, it doesn't work: you don't give a hoot what happens and you're not sure whether any of this is taking place outside of someone's fevered, psilocybin-addled mind. Obviously, they know this: it's not a narrative film, it's a trippy visual film, it's a mood film, it's an atmosphere piece. There are moments when that works well, such as a particularly unnerving sequence with Shearsmith screaming in agony offscreen for what seems like ages, but there are moments when the off-yer-tits trip sequences (in which the screen is mirrored down the middle and the shots get progressively shorter and faster) just get wearying. And that's on home TV: I suspect it would make me ill in even a medium-sized cinema.
A Field In England has been described as an experimental film, but is it really? What's the experiment designed to achieve? If you're making films outside of your own bedroom or media studies class (not intended as an insult: I was a media student once!), then trying whatever wacky stuff comes into your head and seeing if it works isn't a viable option, especially if you're already an established director and you're charging an audience money to see it. For much of the time I just wished Wheatley would stop with the weirdness and tell the damned story. Atmosphere and style shouldn't be the whole point of the exercise: even David Lynch's effortless conjuring of utter dread lose their effect when you neither know nor care what, if anything, is going on. Even the complete absence of coherent narrative in Berberian Sound Studio didn't annoy me as much as it does here.
The more interesting experiment is the release pattern: A Field In England has been made available on all platforms simultaneously - cinema, DVD, Blu, online and TV. That's certainly unusual and I don't think it works as a commercial tactic to make one of the options free. Why on Earth would I have paid to travel to one of the few cinemas screening it or hired it from a rental library when it's on telly that evening for nothing? A much more interesting experiment would be to adopt this pattern for a huge summer blockbuster like Pacific Rim or Man Of Steel: at least then I'd have the choice to see it a handy chain cinema (my nearest option for A Field In England is over 30 miles away). Until the distributors have the balls to market huge-budget spectaculars that way, and cinema chains agree to give up the theatrical window entirely, day-date is going to remain the province of the tiny art movie.
Regardless of the medium, the bottom line is that I didn't like A Field In England at all; rather, I just got steadily more annoyed with it as it went along. Even given that I'm not a fan of the director, I expected more than this given the hype and publicity: yes, it's made a bit of a splash, but the splash itself is really more interesting than the thing that dropped into the bucket and made that splash. I don't feel conned - after all, I watched it for free on Film4 - but I do feel I've rather wasted my time with it.