Bill Douglas's last film, one of the great films of British cinema, and a gorgeous visual poem of surpassing beauty. Among students of the British film industry "Comrades" is best known for its commercial flop: given a wide theatrical release in 1987, disappointing box office led it to be taken off within a couple of weeks before word of mouth recommendations could do anything to build an audience - doubtless many people were expecting a narratively straightforward, Merchant-Ivory piece of historical costume drama. It's never been released theatrically since, and Channel 4, who made it, have only shown it twice since on television - I strongly doubt they've even shown it on their dedicated film channel, FilmFour, either (it doesn't involve people pointing guns at each other). As such, it's a great unknown, and rare copies of the video are hard to come by, so for the immediate future, it's hard to see how this gem is going to become better known.
The music is an oddly inspired choice: apart from the hymns and folk songs that are sung by the characters, the soundtrack music makes no attempt at pastiche of 19th-century musical forms or styles. Instead, Douglas got Hans Werner Henze, one of the leading German composers of the post-war years, to provide music (all the more powerful for being sparingly used) in his own, completely uncompromised modernist idiom (no doubt Henze agreed to do it for little money, as his well-known radical politics would have made him sympathetic to a film about the birth of trade unionism). The rich and magical soundworld Henze evokes with a small group of instruments adds immeasurably to the sense of wonder and the sheer, marvellous strangeness of many of the scenes.
What sticks in the memory most, though, are the arresting, breathtakingly beautiful visual images, frozen in time and never to be forgotten: the lanternist walking across the chalk figure of the Cerne Abbas giant on a dark hillside during the title sequence, then later seen in silhouette passing silently in front of a huge full moon; Hammett (Keith Allen giving his finest performance), too furious to speak, holding up six fingers to the viewer, turning away and then coming back to repeat the gesture to indicate how many shillings they were getting for that week's work; George Loveless (Robin Soans, criminally underused ever since) pushing a shilling coin in front of the face of Jesus in an engraving of the nativity to show Frampton how he, like the wise men in the picture now appear to be doing, worships money; James Loveless walking across a trackless Australian beach and blundering into the shot of an itinerant Italian photographer attempting a portrait of an Aborigine; the Stanfield family saying grace around the table before dividing a pitifully small loaf between too many mouths; George Loveless feeling his way through the depths of a dark Australian forest, enraptured by the beauty and seemingly free, but actually in the world's largest prison. And there are many, many more.
Every image works in its own terms as a visual composition - as striking in their vivid colours, visual rhythm, and the sometimes stylized, almost hieratic gestures of the actors as Caravaggio's "Supper at Emmaus" or "Entombment of Christ". But the images themselves are never tediously lingered over, or presented only for their own sake: common themes run through them. The idea of one object obscuring another, or silhouetted against another (the coin over the face of Christ, the lanternist against the moon) or of an image being projected or captured (the shadow of Frampton's maid passing from room to room, projected against the curtains by the light of her own candle, the lanternist making animal shapes with the shadow of his hands against a wall, the photographer trying to capture an other-worldly image on the beach) are a strong undercurrent, suitably for a film-maker who saw his role as a painter of images. This is made apparent in the director's alter ego throughout the film, Alex Norton - superbly diverse in several different cameo roles, including the photographer, a silhouettist who cuts a paper image of the governor of the Australian penal colony as he engages in barbed political banter, and the lanternist himself (the subtitle of the film is "a lanternist's account of the Tolpuddle Martyrs"): the conceit of the whole film, as an epilogue makes clear, is that it was all a lanternist's show, presented to an audience of well-wishers who had worked for the Martyrs' release. Hints had been given: Norton's various characters had been the only ones, at various times, to stare directly at the viewer, into the camera, the director engaging conspiratorially with his viewers. The great tragedy for film-lovers everywhere, and what must have been a great sadness for Douglas, who died in 1991, is that his viewers have been so few.
UPDATE (February 2009): Film4 finally showed "Comrades" on 21 February this year, more than ten years after the channel began broadcasting. At almost the same time, the British Film Institute announced that they would be releasing the film on DVD and Blu-Ray in summer 2009. Hooray!
Drama / History
Drama / History
The story of "The Tolpuddle Martyrs". A group of nineteenth century English farm laborers who formed one of the first trade unions and started a campaign to receive fair wages. —Steve Crook
Uploaded By: FREEMAN
September 19, 2021 at 11:12 PM