Winstanley | Chicago Reader

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Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's passionate 1975 account of the nonviolent efforts of Gerrard Winstanley (Miles Halliwell) to form a commune in Surrey, England, in 1649 is a quixotic yet hardy attempt to change the way we think about history. Made independently between the late 60s and early 70s and shot in black and white, the film strives for a period verisimilitude so uncompromising and multifaceted that the filmmakers made strenuous efforts to use species of birds, cows, and pigs similar to those that populated 17th-century Surrey. The style is deliberately patterned after silent cinema (Brownlow's specialty as a film historian), though the script is partly derived from a contemporary novel about Winstanley, David Caute's Comrade Jacob. Refusing to make facile links between Winstanley's religious sect, the Diggers, and the English hippies of the 70s, Brownlow and Mollo regard the past with the same sort of awe that SF writers and directors commonly show regarding the future, and the results, while frequently dedramatized, are hauntingly mysterious and often beautiful. This may not be sufficiently achieved to deserve the label “masterpiece,” but it's stayed with me longer than most period masterpieces have; in some ways, despite its meager budget, its only peer is Stanley Kubrick's similarly underrated Barry Lyndon, made during the same period. 96 min.

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