Winstanley Review

Another rare and worthy film is pulled from the BFI Archive onto a high quality HD transfer, a historically accurate and fascinating portrayal of a very English revolutionary.

For their second film, ten years after their controversial, low-budget debut feature It Happened Here depicted a Britain under Nazi occupation, the filmmakers Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo looked towards another revolution in English society that in many ways seems no less fanciful – the creation of hippie communes spreading across England, laying claim to common land, living life according to common law, living a peaceful and communal life of free-love, and not in the 60s but the sixteen-hundreds. In the case of Winstanley however, the events depicted really did happen here.

In 1649, Gerrard Winstanley challenged the laws and morals of English society by taking the religious belief that all men were equal in the eyes of God to its logical conclusion. If all men are free, as they had fought and striven to prove in a bloody Civil War, then no man belongs to another, and no man may lay claim to the land for which they had all equally given their service and their lives. With a group of likeminded individuals, many of them swayed by Winstanley’s eloquent and persuasive writings on the subject, published in tracts and pamphlets, they set up a settlement of ‘Diggers’ on a piece of land on St George Hill, a peaceful community, working common land that was not being cultivated by anyone else, English land that he believed should be considered their birthright. The problem however was that in the eyes of the law, the land belonged to Sir Francis Drake.

Brownlow and Mollo depict this in their film with little concession for traditional historical drama outside of the context setting intertitles and Civil War battle scenes at the film’s outset, aiming rather for an authenticity in the depiction of the period, in its realistic outlook on the lives of poor people and in the nature of people themselves, the working people. The drama arises then not out of any dramatic structuring, reconstruction or narrative, but – much like Bill Douglas’s Comrades also recently released by the BFI – out of the natural conflict and disparity between the lives of the working classes and those of the rich. The accuracy, authenticity and truthfulness towards character and period detail is therefore wholly necessary for the viewer to understand Gerrard Winstanley’s rebellion and the nature of the powerful forces of the establishment he was challenging.

There’s no compromise either with the performances, which are mostly non-professional actors delivering an authentic script that is drawn from Winstanley’s own writings. When you hear Winstanley speak then, you are hearing the man’s own words – not some form of them twisted by scriptwriters to suit conventional narrative exposition – historically accurate and true to the nature of the man. How they are delivered is another matter, the performances coming across as rather stagy and sometimes a little dryly, never reaching for example the humanistic level that Bresson’s impassive models would reciting historical documentation in The Trial of Joan of Arc. Every conversation and pronouncement of Miles Halliwell’s mild-mannered but driven character has a tendency to come across then as a proclamation, like nothing so much as the fervent sermonising of an enthusiastic English country vicar.

And yet, there’s something that feels authentic even in this, the narrative and delivery seeming to truly have the historical characteristics and diction of a period a long-time away from what we could consider naturalistic in modern speech and cinematic presentation. And, as Winstanley himself believed, it’s actions that speak louder than words, the filmmakers succeeding much better in creating an historically accurate period environment with real people, and showing credibly the contrasts that gives rise to the conflict between the peaceable, hard-working labouring classes and the establishments of church and nobility who stir up suspicion, hatred and violence against them. It’s not taken as a given however that this arises naturally out of some pre-Marxist class conflict, nor does Winstanley idealise the lives of the Diggers, rather it takes care to show both sides, showing principally through the parson’s wife – who is initially sympathetic to their aims but comes to feel the threat to social order and morality that their radical way of living represents to “decent” people – that it was a way of life that English 17th century society was perhaps not quite ready to embrace.


Winstanley is released on Blu-ray in the UK by the BFI. The disc is BD50 and both the film and extra features come with a 1080/24p encode. The disc is not region locked.

Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, restored in 2K, the High Definition transfer of Winstanley is most impressive, demonstrating a remarkable range of greyscale tones, deep rich blacks, luminous whites and rich textures that you could almost reach out and touch, such is the quality of the depth of field achieved. There are no noticeable marks or print damage and few other issues of any real concern. Some flickering is evident, whether from the source elements, the telecine transfer of them or from the digitisation I couldn’t say, but most of these issues occur around the start of the film – presumably 16mm elements since this is the only place where grain is also at all noticeable – and thereafter only very infrequently. For the most part, the quality of print and transfer – supervised by Brownlow and cinematographer Ernest Vincze – is quite astonishing, showing tremendous sharpness and detail in crisp chiaroscuro compositions.

The PCM 2.0 audio track is also fully restored and wonderfully clear with a good dynamic range. Take for example the high twitter of birds and the low grunt of pigs in the scene where General Fairfax visits the settlement for the first time, followed in the next scene by the deep rumble of thunder and the downpour of rain mixed with the medium pitch of a flute playing. There is some underlying hiss and noise in one or two places, but this is undoubtedly down to the character of the original recording and condition of the source materials. The narration and dialogue shouldn’t be difficult to make out however, coming across effectively and with clarity – you couldn’t really ask for better. Some lip-sync issues are also evident but, as the notes on the transfer indicate, these can be put down to the amount of post-sync dubbing done on the film.

English for Hard of Hearing subtitles are available for the film and all extra features on the disc.

The Interview with the Directors is more of a three-way conversation between Rollo, Brownlow and Mamoun Hassan, the head of the BFI Production Board at the time who funded the film. It covers the early controversy of the filmmaker’s earlier debut feature and how they came upon the idea of making a film about Winstanley, how funding was achieved and how the film was cast, considering the other obstacles that would stand in their way in the shooting. They discuss critical reaction to the film, their feelings on it viewing it now in hindsight and point out the mostly silent movie influences that went into it.

Even more comprehensive, Eric Mival’s film It Happened Here Again (49:14) is more of a real documentary than what we now know of as a Making Of, covering the film’s production in great detail right down to the catering arrangements, but evidently placing most emphasis on the authenticity of the production design. There is colour footage of on-set filming and Brownlow and Mollo can be seen mucking in building sets and acting as extras. Brownlow has a few funny anecdotes to make about the experience of commercial filmmaking, and reveals other aspects of the casting and acting in the film.

9 Dalmuir West (12:49) is a short documentary made by Kevin Brownlow on the occasion of the last run of the Glasgow’s final tram route and the end of an era in more ways than one. Its rather matter of fact narration clashes slightly with the affectionate look at the people employed here, but a sequence using the Tornados’ Telstar is inspired for the sense of (now) dated modernism that the documentary captures.

A Restoration (1:43) featurette shows before and after samples of work done on the original elements, principally the removal of white dustspots and tone correction and regarding.

A 34-page booklet contains an essay on the film by David Gardiner, looking at the historical character of Winstanley, his ideals and how these are treated in the film; a reflection by Marina Lewycka on the spirit of revolution mirrored in events of the late 60s and 70s and on her involvement in the making of the film as a consultant; and some notes by Eric Mival on the making of the Making of documentary ‘It Happened Here Again’. Archive reviews of the film by Tom Milne, Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Robinson are reprinted, there are Biographies of Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, Cast & Credits information, and notes on the restoration and transfer. The booklet is of course fully illustrated with production stills.

Winstanley is a unique and curious British film, the manner of its making quite unlike most commercial film productions, but it’s a manner that works in the favour of its subject, and the sincerity of the filmmakers intentions and their striving for authenticity lends a rare quality to a film about a very English kind of revolutionary. Another wonderful rare film revived by the BFI, Winstanley looks tremendous on Blu-ray, showing just what the High Definition medium is capable of achieving even with older black-and-white films.


Updated: Aug 07, 2009

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