The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

The Haunted Voice and Spherical Narrative of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England

Ryan Arwood


‘The frothing of the hedges I keep deep inside me.’ Jean Wahl (Poème)

A slasher-cum-hallucination-cum-haunted period drama, Ben Wheatley’s 2013 film pits ghosts against time, spectre against conjured and voices against narrative.  A Field in England is set in a monochromatic field at the fringes of a battle during the English Civil War, following a group of deserters (Whitehead, Cutler, Friend and Jacob) who walk, almost aimlessly, through a field in rural England after having met during a noisy battle.  Their actions begin to be marked by disputes and fatigue fuelled by the effects of hallucinatory mushrooms, having been fed to them by Cutler, to make them more manageable to his demands.  They are then forced to search for treasure by the Irishman O’Neil until the deserters rage a war of their own against him.

The viewer is dropped, without context, into the film’s eponymous field.  The characters’ actions and reasoning are not explained because, in their point of view, they are not out of joint.  The viewer is the one out of joint in the film, time travellers to this field in the past.  Like a science fiction film set in the future we, the viewer, are left to put the historical puzzle pieces together.

The film questions the evil of the haunted and, by imposing this position upon the viewer, influences and modifies the meaning of the plot and its repetitive nature (Derrida Of Grammatology 41).  What, in the film, makes up the living world of the characters?  Why do the aggressions that arise so fervently towards each other dissipate seconds later without question or remembrance?  Why should the characters have narrative but not history?  According to Derrida the being ‘is announced as such... as ‘non-living’ up to ‘consciousness,’ passing through all levels of animal organisation’ (Derrida Of Grammatology 47).  In the entire field, the field as physical space and the field as narrative, the being-present starts from an occulted movement of trace.  But what is its trace as the characters are concerned?

Physically these characters are bound to a singular point in time and space; the film is set during a battle and it is filmed entirely on a field.  But constructively, or rather de-constructively, they move about not only within the field, in search of treasure, but also outside of it by haunted means of the conjuring (Derrida Spectres 49).  However, despite these agonising questions the characters remain relatively un-inquisitive.  Friend asks questions of his life’s meaning but ultimately rests his decision that God’s plan is unquestionable.  It could be stated that the characters’ lack of questioning lie in the fact that interrogated space is haunted space (Wigley 201) and that the structure of the crypt, later to be seen as the pit in which they dig for treasure, is built into the structure of space - the field.  Cutler, Friend, Jacob and Whitehead need not ask questions verbally for us, the viewer, to hear for they exist already in this interrogated space:  the field.    

So what makes this film a hauntology?  Where are these characters’ voices emerging from and how these voices tie together?  Upon the first viewing this film simply seems to be a jumbled lexicon of camera angles, strobe light effects intending to replicate mushroom induced hallucinations.  But it is a much thicker mix of arrival and timeliness that is out of joint (Derrida Spectres 49).  Derrida’s out of joint, here quoting Hamlet in Spectres, concerns the film’s aspects of the ‘noted,’ the ‘represented’ and the ‘figured’ (Derrida Of Grammatology 52) that correlates with the characters perceived ghostliness and their provenance.

‘Noted’ because their provenance, along with their perceived futures, is everything except noted, ‘represented’ because the characters’ presentation of themselves change as they move throughout the field and within each conjuring, and ‘figured’ because, due to the difference of the deferred moments in the film, the characters go about marking different levels of representation that can be read as a figuration of their time on the field.

Thinking de-constructively about the film I began catching myself courting the haunted thoughts of Jacques Derrida throughout my many viewings of this film.  In the narrative there are five characters:  Friend, Cutler, O’Neil, Jacob and Whitehead.  Except for O’Neil, the characters all meet each other at the fringes of a battle as Whitehead is seen fleeing his soon to be dead master.  Physically the fringes of this battle are delineated by a hedgerow whence Whitehead is seen fleeing.  Spatially the characters never break this delineation for the focus is on the field itself; the field of tall grasses and heather that will shield, later, the characters from the haunted images they face.

So, upon this first ‘sight’ we could ask ourselves of an arrival, if indeed Whitehead is arriving here on the field past the hedgerows, and what the future-to-come may bring.  Are we going towards the future or are we escaping it?  Interestingly I don’t believe that this question becomes posed to the viewer until much later in the film but that is what makes Wheatley’s narrative so rich with possibility and confusion.  Each viewing brings to question the provenance of each character and their previous actions that, perhaps, we were unaware of in an earlier viewing.

Narratively the film acts like a circle, or a rolling sphere (the narrative’s turns rolling forward but non linearly), of which we are not aware yet.  If the question of the narrative comes from the future what does that make of the past?  Also, what stands in front of us if we already think we know of the future-to-be?  Like any kind of provenance we become aware of the crux of the question I pose through a learned experience (Derrida Spectres xix). Whitehead leaves the hedgerows and enters into the field and, despite previous viewings of the film, I ask myself whither instead of whence because he is a spirit in the film that must come to be reckoned with.  I already know where he comes from even though the film never leaves the field in order to venture past the hedgerows.  As Derrida questions, ‘How can it come back and present itself again, anew, as the new?  How can it be there, again, when its time is no longer there?’ (Derrida Spectres 49)

Despite these questions, or perhaps in order to fuel these questions, the film progresses around these characters as they venture out, yet still hemmed in by the field, in search of an alehouse.  The alehouse positions itself as this preposition that refers to a time and a place.  We know, or at least we think we know, that the characters have a place that needs to be got to in the future.  It is a matter of telling ourselves to pretend to certify this time in space of which we cannot be certain.  For briefly after this we encounter a type of conjuring that, upon first glance, takes part at a specific time in the narrative.  Upon first viewing the film does progress linearly.  Whitehead is fleeing someone.  The characters meet each other and go in search of an alehouse.  Now, the character Cutler convinces the other characters to do a task in gratitude for being taken to this alehouse.

Here the film takes a surprising turn.  Any sense of linearity we saw in the narrative journey to the alehouse is gone. Instead we find ourselves back in a web of a provenance we can’t be sure of.  Instead, we find ourselves in a film concerned with the ‘commerce and theatre of gravediggers’ (Derrida Spectres 40).  We will soon find the characters positioned around and inside a pit in a search for treasure.  But as I aim to show, this pit is more than a hole in the ground potentially filled with treasure.  It is also a provenance of the characters and, as well, a destination point.

Narratively in the film the characters Jacob, Whitehead and Friend are following Cutler to an alehouse of which Cutler has told them.  They follow him blindly and exchange stories of their past.  We learn little of them, of their lives outside of the field.  But what we will learn is that Cutler drugs them with mushrooms – an historic fact Wheatley wanted to play upon in his narrative of the English Civil War – and convinces them to unearth the Irishman O’Neil.  Then O’Neil drugs Whitehead and through powers of the occult gives away the location of treasure somewhere in the field.  The characters, under the guidance of Cutler, begin to dig.  They dig a pit and from this pit they conjure themselves.

The pit signifies the film’s encircling, that is to say murky, digression and deferral.  Digging in the pit in their search for treasure they eventually find bones.  These bones, in this unimportant field, conjure the digression of the characters’ ultimate demise.  These five characters come from this grave they dig themselves. They will return and they will act out their fiendish plights again and again for our hungry bewitched eyes from the bottom of this pit.

At the beginning of the film, the viewer sees Whitehead turn and look into the background to see two figures shrouded in the mist of gunshot; here we see the last scene as ghostly revenant.  We, as the viewer, speculate the meaning of these figures and that is the fascination that bewitches the spectre for they, themselves, are a speculation of exchange because they dream of a pure exchange (Derrida Spectres 40): An exchange that will perhaps lift them from this spherical narrative that sees them replaying this battle over and over again.

At this scene we find the characters, at Cutler’s request, pulling at a rope wrapped around a stake.  They pull and the stake turns.  After some time Whitehead gives up and we see a man in the middle of the field ahead.  This is the first time in the linear progression of the film we see a conjuring.

O’Neil’s appearance in the film is truly one of arrival.  And a beautiful arrival at that, for it wonderfully illustrates a key point of the ghostly revenant.   Derrida’s Spectres asks of the ghost not only if it is going to come back but also, if it has not already begun to arrive, where is it going and what is its future?  O’Neil’s arrival asks of the film if the question of the spectre is whither or whence? (Derrida Spectres 37)  For, according to Derrida, the future can only belong to the haunted and may even, as this film may prove, be the past as well.

O’Neil is conjured by physical force, the tug of war by the group of men.  Convinced by Jacob to tug upon a rope wrapped around a stake of wood, the friends work laboriously, unravelling a length of rope from this stake in the ground.  Wheatley gives no hint at all in the film to the stake’s provenance nor to its meaning.  After Whitehead gives up, the camera finds a bearded man lying in the grass covered in the rope that was wrapped around the now absent stake.

The turning of the stake is marked by the added tenseness of the drug induced stupor.  But let’s remember:  ‘This not-knowing is not a lacuna’ (Derrida Spectres 37).  Had he, O’Neil, not announced himself already would his appearance, his re-naissance, have meant anything more?  We are unaware at this point in the film O’Neil’s provenance.  Has he been mentioned before this point in the film? Was he the expected arrival of the stake’s turning or a mistake?  Whitehead did give up early after all.  What if he had kept going?

For Derrida this lack of progressive knowledge saturates an opening that would have little, if any, effect upon the heterogeneity of the affirmed.   The future will be its memory and therein lies the lacuna pitted into the film I find to be so delicious in this cinematographic work.  Ben Wheatley’s film is a loop.  A conjured loop where any act of conjuring is merely an await without any fulfilled horizon of one (Derrida Spectres 65).  The characters are haunted figures of the field.  They are possessions of the field and the borders, the hedgerows, are their boundary from constructed time and deconstructed time.

The rhythm in which the characters act out their narrative is built into the structure of the field they inhabit.  By placing them in this space Wheatley gives the film a sense of interior, instead of an exterior whereupon they would merely drift.  I say this because in their interior, the field, they seem to drift aimlessly as they can’t figure out why they are there or what is going on.  This rhythm questions the inhabited space that frustrates them.  The conjured O’Neil, appearing at the moment when they are most confused, sees their weaknesses and gives them all a project.  This space, the field, is a container of treasure.  They will dig it up and he shall claim it.

O’Neil, at this juncture of the film, becomes a threat.  Stereotypically the conjured, or more aptly the ghost, is felt as a threat.  This is because there is always a question of a present of the spectre and its history.  Derrida asks: where is the linear succession ‘between a “real time” and a “deferred time”?’ (Derrida Spectres 39)  In this film, then, where is this linear progression and when will this deferred time sprout up and reveal itself?  Looked upon in this way, I say that it never will.  This film’s end is its beginning and vice-versa.

O’Neil denotes upon the characters a sense of the spectral while grave digging.  This digging for treasure is a dimensional interpretation marked by age.  They dig for a treasure that isn’t there.  Instead they dig up old bones.  But what is old?  What is the present?  Whose bones are these and is that important?  Derrida begs us to examine the essence of the present, ‘the presence of the present’ (Derrida Différance 23).  Superficially the viewer can see the present of the film as the moment the images happen on the screen; the physical, temporal present we inhabit.  However, Wheatley deconstructs this essence of presence by placing the spatial happenings of the film in a singular, static location: the field.  Playfully he tries to hide the essence of the emergence, this future we try to find in the film, blurring the relation between ‘presencing and what is present’ (Derrida Différance 23).

Wheatley presents the narrative as a linear progression laid out flat like a map projected from a globe.  Edges are bent and disorientated.  Some events become smaller, some larger.  What remains omnipresent is the field itself.  The field is this haunted locale in the film where beings hide.  Characters hide in the tall grasses.  There may be treasure under here.  There may be nothing.  By this definition only the space of the field can be haunted, the word ‘haunting’ etymologically tied to that of ‘house’ (Wigley 163).  The field denotes its haunted aspect to the conjured ghosts that traipse its surface.

Seeing the field through the lens of Derrida is about seeing space, or rather, a spacing between scenes within the field.  A type of indigestion (Wigley 174) that sees the characters moving about these structures, let’s say points of interest, they make up for themselves, or rather find themselves stuck in.  I say indigestion because, firstly, Derrida concerns himself with the act of mourning as eating.  Digestion, spatially, is a convoluted crypt that configures and de-configures the body passing through it.  Secondly, I say indigestion because the characters spend a great deal of time in the film eating hallucinatory mushrooms.  This literal sense of indigestion is important not only due to Wheatley’s interest in the historical qualities of mushroom taking during the battles of the Civil War, but also because it marks places in the film where the characters go. 

When talking of deconstruction in a film one needs look for what is buried in the entrails of the actors that allows them to move through the spaces we see on screen.  The haunted, according to Derrida, is ‘accentuated, accelerated by modern technologies like film, television, the telephone...  When the very first perception of an image is linked to a structure of reproduction, then we are dealing with the realm of phantoms’ (Derrida The Ghost Dance 60-73).  The deconstructive image here is the characters’ wanton dance through the frame of the camera.  These characters only have vague recollection whence they came and know no more about whither they go.

Whitehead is convinced he is a on a mission given to him by his occult master but he is unconvinced in himself to carry the plan to fruition.  Friend, the bumbling fool, was thought to be dead at the beginning of the film but arose at the slightest voicing of beer.  Friend questions his position on the field and wants to know why God has brought him here.  Of the other characters we are given even less information.

Like a loop road, the characters walk only to eventually find themselves where they started.  The deferral in this film cannot settle down in any particular ‘epoch’ because, as mentioned earlier, these ghosts exist outside of time, away (conjured) from the spectral temporality of time.  The difference of time and space, as it is ingested by the characters, is an aspect of unfolding of the Being (Derrida Différance 22) and their spatial relativeness to one another during different moments in the film.

These figures move about the screen haunting one another and exchanging positions of power.  O’Neil needs Whitehead because Whitehead has knowledge of the occult and can pinpoint where in the field the treasure is.  The others are needed for their sheer power, their naivety and innocence in the face of doom, or even their ruthless desire to be in charge.  All of these qualities move about from character to character, a deferral that keeps this sphere of a film rolling along the track.  Always differing and deferring, the characters help each other and hurt each other.

Friend, for instance, dies twice in this film.  He is thought dead at the beginning but, perhaps, is merely knocked out.  He dies next when he is accidentally shot by Cutler during a scrap with Jacob whilst digging in the pit for the treasure O’Neil has forced them to unearth.  He rises again later during one of the final scenes as Jacob and Whitehead fight with O’Neil.  Upon waking, Friend draws attention to Jacob and Whitehead, hid behind a table, whilst O’Neil searches for them amongst the field. After the divulging of their hiding place he runs through the field carrying a spike in order to kill O’Neil in an effort to win back the affections of his friends.  He is shot though by O’Neil, and dies again.

The trace here is beyond that which may link the physical goings-on between the characters and the phenomenology, what we as viewers see.  This trace we see is never as it is in the representation, or indeed presentation, of what it is (Derrida Différance 23).  These characters are constantly erasing preconceived and learned notions of themselves through the film.  As the spherical ball of plot rolls along the path the writing becomes rubbed out only to reappear, to be conjured again, later.

This rolling ball effect creates a resistance in the film drawing the viewer into a sense of unease.  The narrative, at times, becomes hard to watch.  Wheatley intentionally uses drunken camera effects where the visual narrative is obscured by darting camera moves.  During one scene of the film the narrative focus is on the battle between Jacob and Whitehead against O’Neil.  There is no sound except for the sound of the wind, which, for some reason unknown, is nearly cyclonic.  The imagery reverts between split screens as if a mirror has been placed down the middle of the lens.  There are flash backs darting back and forth in the style of strobe lights.  This physical resistance can be elaborated as a sense of rhythm that haunts the space of tradition.  The space of tradition, as elaborated upon earlier, is the space of the house, the oikos (Derrida Différance 27) that is haunted by the displacement of the domestic.

The field that the battle the characters find themselves in is a graphic deferral from the historical battle of the Civil War.  The English Civil War rages on at the fringes of the field, outside of this specific time temporally but contemporaneous in their memories.  Dropped in the middle, the viewer removed historically from the events taking place, we see the characters plucked from the time in which they navigate.  The Civil War has a very temporal beginning and end, whereas this field with these haunted spectres does not.  For these reasons this graphic difference between the battle from which they fled and the battle in which they find themselves now vanishes and extends into an invisible relationship (Derrida Différance 5).

As I mentioned earlier, this is the scene where Friend dies another time.  Friend arises from the hiding place behind the table and runs to O’Neil brandishing a pike only to be shot point-blank.  O’Neil, lying in the grass wounded, is then left temporarily vulnerable as he needs to reload.  Here Whitehead’s emerging voice comes to the foreground.  The film’s coward, the character that found the non-existent treasure, lifts up from the grass, hid like a ghost, and shouts ‘The coward is here!’ and shoots O’Neil dead.

This deferral, in the pre-dominate voice, marks a presence in the film that always could have been found.  This deference does not mark the beginning of a new stage for Whitehead but instead is a head nod towards the investment that thoughtfully delayed its perception in order to profit from its specific moment of emergence (Derrida Différance 20).  For at this stage of the film Whitehead is then seen burying his companions, Jacob and Friend, and walking through the field.  He wears a cape, carries a rifle and dons a hat.  Foreboding music plays in the soundtrack.  He then finds himself amongst the hedgerows seen at the beginning of the film, the same hedgerows demarcating the edge between Civil War Battle and the struggle between the central characters.  Finally, as this is the final scene, the camera’s movement obscures our view.  We cannot tell if Whitehead is clear to the other side of the hedgerow or not.  However, what we are afforded in this final scene is Whitehead, Jacob and Friend, together again to re-emerge as the central spectres in their own conjuring.

So what is the origin?  Why are these characters back after having been buried by Whitehead?  Did Whitehead ever die?  These are questions of an origin that never existed in this film.  The ending of the film, where the characters are seen standing, marks the beginning of the film where Whitehead turns and sees two shrouded figures in the dust.  This ending is a deletion in the final writing of this particular epoch (Derrida Of Grammatology 23) that is destined to repeat itself. 

Physically a roll of film must have a beginning and an end but our narrative histories and futures do not.  The sense of being in this film originates from the field whence all the characters emerge.  We see this emergence now at the films physical end.  We saw Whitehead burying his friends.  We saw the shrouded figures at the beginning of the film.  We saw O’Neil conjured by the grass.  In regard to the deferral we see a derivative.  What is being deferred?  The leaving of the field, of course.  The characters are derived from the field and they will not leave.

The field is the terminology making up the films perpetual start and re-start.  The field is the last and first signifier.  Wheatley encompasses in this film the semiology of what this field is to the characters.  It proposes to retain its own meaning, this flat field where grass grows, to designate the whole and replacing the meaning of death, start and finish (Derrida Of Grammatology 31).

These words, in relation to their meaning in the narrative, will always be on the outside, the fringes, of the narrative just like known reality beyond the hedgerows of the field.  As long as we pose the question of provenance and position of the beginning and end the representation of these will remain blurred.  By ceasing to posit these meanings with a concept of their provenance the film begins to make sense as a circular narrative.  To designate the beginning and to replace it with the end constitutes a unity, an effect of drawing attention to the films ambiguity and articulation of the haunted voices slipping in and out of their differing power and deferral of time and spatial constructs (Derrida Of Grammatology 31).

Wheatley’s film plays on our constructed sense of alterity in the person and the haunted, the ghost, and their voices.  The structure of the film delays our desire to recognise a stereotypical sort of haunted image, or haunted being, and how it is presented in a typical narrative form of beginning, middle and end.  The film is not concerned with the conscious horizon of past or future.  Instead it modifies it where the ‘past’ has never been present, will never be present, and whose future to come will not be a production because it has already happened (Derrida Différance 21).

A Field in England mixes trace of historic-fiction concerned not only with the presentation of itself through cinematic prowess but also a tangible resonating of difference and deferral of the occult and the uncircumventable meditation of voice (Derrida Différance 23).  Instead of imposing his own questions upon the viewer Ben Wheatley’s film instead begs the viewer to ask their own questions about the events, and their meanings, unravelling before them.  Through the melding of speech and being in the film’s colourful script, Wheatley’s characters’ provenance from the titular monochromatic field continue to haunt us even after several viewings coming round to haunt us again and again.

Works Cited

Derrida, J. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.  Baltimore and New York: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974; 1976.

Derrida, J.  Spectres of Marx:  The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Derrida, J.  Writing and Différence. London: Routledge, 1978.

Derrida, Jacques. ‘The Ghost Dance: An Interview with Jacques Derrida.’ Ed. Mark Lewis and Andrew Payne. Trans. Jean-Luc Svoboda. Public 2 (1989): 60-73.

Wigley, Mark. The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida's Haunt.  Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993.

A Field in England.  Dir. Ben Wheatley.  Film Four, 2013.  Film.

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