Comrades (1986)



Bill Douglas directs Robin Soans, Keith Allen and Alex Norton in this epic recreation of the Tolpuddle martyrs story. 

A very beautiful, very patient and very pure movie. Douglas chooses a slow rhythm, a relaxed wave of almost painterly tableauxs, to allow the historical tragedy to unfold. He presents the social and economic situation where a family’s work is undervalued to unliveable prices. Where the hierarchy conspire together so that any discussion of wage increase is stunted, muted or retaliated to punitively. He presents the positive unifying of the men in the village to take non violent, non disruptive action to improve their plight. He lingers on their punishment (transportation to Australia) and eventual redemption. These recreations have the same visually seductive and period accurate detailing of any impressive literary adaptation you care to mention. But his visual style makes this world of less than two centuries ago seem strange and alien. A world without rights or welfare infrastructure feels prehistoric to modern viewers (and it is a world the Tories and Trump want to erode us back into one privatisation at a time). By the time we reach Australia we may as well be exploring a fantasy dream world. Yet the risk and consequences feel tangible, brutal even. It is not all darkness and didactic polemic though. The martyrs have a warmth and humour to them that holds our hand over their mistreatment. And Douglas follows Alex Norton through a series of roles from travelling magic lantern gypsy to early hermit photographer. Via this sidebar of cameos, the pair essay a mini history of the birth of cinema. Comrades is a complex and triumphant work, ripe for rediscovery as a modern classic. I probably would have missed out on it if it wasn’t for a trip with my family to The Tolpuddle Martyrs museum in Dorset occurring in close proximity with the Edinburgh Filmhouse showing it as part of their 40th anniversary retrospective. The shot of the doomed men arriving in good faith to negotiate a modest pay rise,  only to be offered to sit on a set of chairs they failed to secure a fair price on earlier still lingers with me over a month later.


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