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4.1 out of 5 stars
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4.1 out of 5 stars
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on 25 October 2010
Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's minor classic - a sort of pastoral Spartacus that develops into a chilly Mosquito Coast - regards the 17th century reformist-activist leader Gerrard Winstanley, and it really puts the period in period drama. Made for tuppence, it memorably recreates a time and place too often the reserve of buttoned-up aristocrats. Here it is the domain of the common digger, eking the living on God's land. Problem is, General Lord Fairfax reckons the land belongs to him.

You just have to zip over to IMDb and click on each cast member to get a taste of what an achievement this film is. Other than Jerome Willis (Fairfax himself), you're hard-pushed to find another professional actor among the cast. So yes, some of the performances are amateurish by default. But others are remarkable: aside from Miles Halliwell's titular visionary (whose brow is the very definition of furrowed), David Bramley's Parson Platt in particular stands out as a model of eerie poise and stern implacability.

But it's the photography that really brings the film to life. In sharp monochrome, all the colour of rural England seems to breathe. The faces of the ex-soldiers, scarred like land masses, look like they're filmed in 3D. And then there is the constant mood of inventiveness, with the editor (Sarah Ellis, hacking the frame with Schoonmaker-esquire skill and savagery) unafraid to lurch from extreme close-up to echoing long shot, and the directors even shifting focus to a first-person perspective during one of the many attacks on the diggers' settlement.

With its timeless themes of the stricken many versus "the covetous few", Winstanley is as relevant now as ever (not least when one offscreen character compares Winstanley's celebrity prophet to a certain Muhammad). Its unique atmosphere, striking visuals and strong plotting elevate it to essential viewing.
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on 2 October 2009
Courtesy of the BFI, here's a film about a form of Christian communism in puritan England. Not the first choice for a featurefilm, you might think.
Think again. It's superb.

Never thought I'd enjoy it, but it's compelling from start to finish, with some magnificent black-and-white photography (why is it that the colours are always so much better in monochrome ???!!!) and an air of realism about the whole thing that knocks spots off many far more expensive historical dramas.

Even the atrocious weather is magnificent - every raindrop and gust of wind a star!

The mainly amateur cast does a grand job with their oddball characters, (they don't say much, but they look and feel every hardship) and you can't help but be moved by this simple and ultimately rather sad tale.

It's a film that will certainly stand up to many viewings, and deserves a permanent place in the catalogue of excellent British pictures.

More like this would be a good thing.
Thanks to the BFI for rescuing it from oblivion.
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VINE VOICEon 9 February 2014
Although this is slightly old-fashioned it is still well-worth watching for the central performance and for the cinematography, and because it puts pictures to Winstanley's life, telling the story of the Diggers and their battle for St George's Hill. Costumes and environments seem authentic, but the whole thing is a bit ponderous in relation to today's faster-moving drama documentaries. Be prepared to fall asleep and have to re-wind! Recommended for anyone researching Winstanley's life - school projects etc. I can also recommend John Gurney's book, 'Brave Community, The Digger Movement in the English Revolution' which is a useful account of the movement and gives excellent notes and references.
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on 27 April 2010
It was great to see this again at the LFF. To hear Kevin speak about its making and then to see it on the screen!

We have the DVD and its a much better film than I remember from my younger days when it always seemed simply odd rather than curiously brilliant.

I was one of the kids in the village and spent days getting chased around by either blokes in armour or Sid and his ranters!

It was all good fun and looking back it is interesting to see just how much of both the work and its substance resonates as much today as it did back in the Diggers day.
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on 2 February 2011
Here's the synopsis bit: in the political and social ferment following the English Civil War a pamphlet called The New Law of Righteousness, was published by Gerrard Winstanley advocating a form of Christian Communism. He set up a self-sufficient commune of "Diggers" to claim back common land for the poor and dispossessed. Which didn't please the loutish locals, or the rich landlords, and especially not pious parson Platt. Cue yobbish raids on the peace-abiding commune; the humble diggers frequently beaten up, their simple settlement smashed, their small straw-bale houses burnt down.

The film was made over a period of 6/7 years on a shoe-string with mostly amateur actors picked more on authentic look (i.e bad teeth) than credible acting ability. I've noticed that the best way to direct a non-professional cast seems to be to not give them much dialogue to say or complicated feelings to emote; just get them accentuating how they normally look and ordinarily are - which in this case meant lots of dirty plaintive faces suffering misery-inducing hardship, while wearing dopey hobbit hats.

Winstanley is played by Mike Halliwell - a teacher - who, when sermonising to his illiterate peasant flock, sounded like he was tutoring posh kids at a public school; he's earnest enough (brow is set firmly to furrowed) but not entirely convincing; too nice and polite, too 20th century well-mannered - to cut it as a rough hewn 17th century charismatic visionary.

Another 20th century incursion - altho this one seemed deliberate - was the involvement of real life "diggers": Sid Rawle's bunch of anarchic 70's squatters recast as 17th century hippy Ranters; they monkey mad-eyed and butt-naked around the camp. Winstanley's sober (True) Levellers seemed by comparison, tame - not free-spirited, but merely meekly subservient - passively yoking themselves to yet another compliant form of pious Bible puritanism.

Considering this film was more or less made for nothing it looks great; the black and white cinematography seems to crisply authenticate all the mud and misery; rain dripped off bare branches, dripping onto blank faces, squalling over sodden pixie hovels (why did they build their dwellings so small i wonder); the sooty smoke and crackle of the campfire so tangible i was warming my hands on the laptop screen.

This film - along with Bill Douglas's Comrades - would agitate any aspiring lefty activists. I felt leftily activated enough to check out Winstanley, Sid Rawle, The Ranters, The Levellers, etc on Google. I didn't go as far as Christian Communism though. That looked a bit too back breakingly dull for me.
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on 18 April 2010
I really wanted to like this. Culturally, politically, historically... about any way you could think of, I should have liked it.

But I really didn't. Quality lighting and good politics cant beat poor story telling, amateur acting and very lack lustre direction. I'd have learnt more (and have) from a good documentary because - apart from anything else - I couldn't, I the end, even finish it.

A missed opportunity. Two stars but only because of good intentions.
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on 26 February 2011
I have been interested in left wing activism most of my life with particular interest in the new Model Army and its politics. I purchased Winstanley on the basis of several reviews and a desire to know more of the man.
I enjoyed the film very much, Entertaining and worthy but what a shame films on this type of subject has to be low budget.
The use of Black and white must be down to cost, it cannot be realism, as far as I know, people in the 17th century saw in colour as we do, so why does b&W offer realism? I thought Miles Halliwell was very good, but from what I've read he wasn't quite the softly spoken mild mannered man portrayed here. He was apparantly given to visions and trances and had the usual sect leaders hold over many of his adherents. Nothing of his intense religiosity comes through in this film.
I think Brownlow and Mollo were more interested in the proto communism of Winstanley rather than his Christianity. probably only to be expected from rather upper middle class "class warriors" of the seventies I'm afraid.
The most ridiculous part of the film was the introduction of the "Ranters" If they wanted authenticity, why include them? they were never any ranters with Winstanley. This sub plot seems merely to be a ploy to allow some latent hippy benefit scrounger to be in the film, perhaps appealing to the posturing ninnies that permeated left wing circles in those days. More than a worthy film, but flawed.
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on 4 June 2015
Excellent modern production of a virtually but crucial time in the history of these islands.
Thank you seller!
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on 17 June 2015
An excellent film for anyone with an interest in cromwellian era Britain.
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on 17 November 2015
Thought provoking
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