WINSTANLEY (Dir. Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, 1975, UK) – ‘There shall be no buying and selling…’

It was pretty dispiriting to read a couple of reviews from mainstream publications that rubbished such an extraordinary and unique British film. I approached Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s Winstanley from an entirely neutral perspective and whilst I had heard good things about it I knew absolutely nothing about the real life figure of Gerrard Winstanley. The BFI invest a lot of time and effort into the DVD’s and now Blu Ray discs they release each year. In many ways, their careful academic approach echoes Criterion in America and on the strength of their booklets alone, they exceed many of their nearest competitors. The special features on the Winstanley Blu Ray disc are exhaustive and rich including a definitive documentary on the making of the film, a newly recorded interview with Brownlow and Mollo and an early short from Kevin Brownlow. Released in 1975, Winstanley is a magnificent film which I am finding difficult to discuss without becoming ideologically discursive. As the 1970s are slowly rescued from the bonfire of British cinema, it is becoming apparent how important the decade was in terms of producing some of the toughest, idiosyncratic and romantic British films of the last fifty years; Get Carter, Don’t Look Now, Walkabout, The Devils, A Clockwork Orange, to name but a few. Brownlow and Mollo only ever made two feature films together (the first being It Happened Here in 1966)– a disappointing fact given Brownlow’s comments in the interview included on the disc in which he criticises the British film industry for failing to nurture and support their talent which is not surprising given their choice of political subjects. Winstanley is a rarity, a socialist manifesto that takes place in a rural England of 1649 but through its call for equality pays tribute to a familiar class struggle. Here’s a quote from Jonathan Rosenbaum who contributes in his regularly brilliant way to the notes for the film included in the booklet:

‘There’s really not much to be said for Winstanley, except that it’s the most mysteriously beautiful English film since the best of Michael Powell (which it resembles in no other respect) and the best pre-twentieth century historical film I can recall since The Rise of Louis XIV [Rossellini] or Straub’s Bach film [Chronicle of Anna Magdalena]. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I can’t help it. Mysteriously beautiful films which tell one something about the past are rare commodities, and one certainly doesn’t expect to find anything as idiosyncratic as this one in the English cinema.’

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