'Comrades' has finally given me the soapbox I needed to discuss something that has bothered me for years. Unions. I work across the street from one (yes, even us reviewers work day jobs), and though I understand what a vital role they played in the development of workman's rights throughout the last few centuries, I believe that in the modern workplace, the Union system has turned into a self-serving mess.
I am merely setting the stage for this review by sharing my opinion on this issue. I volunteered to review 'Comrades' blindly, having never heard of the film or its subject, namely the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Don't feel ashamed if you're scratching your heads at their mention, as their story is one of those "forgotten" bits of history. Would I have mixed feelings watching the tale of the men who formed a Union and faced dire consequences, or could this film reach through to me, regardless of my predisposition? If you look at the star ratings for a review before reading, you already know the answer to that one.
When a group of laborers became fed up with their diminishing wages, they were left with only two clear options (take it, or leave it), so they set out to change the situation, forming the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. But when an arbitrated agreement between the owners and workers was violated by their employers, they find themselves in deep trouble, with antiquated laws against swearing "secret oaths" condemning them to seven years "transportation" in Australia, the British penal colony.
'Comrades' takes an unusual stance on the subject matter, with prolonged periods of time setting the stage at a snail's pace, slowly showing an increased tension between the laborers and owners before depicting a life of servitude in a harsh, unforgiving foreign land. There is no stance on the events that transpired, no opinion jammed down the throats of viewers; rather, we are shown a recreation of the times, in classic period piece fashion, where we feel the triumphs and defeats of the men involved, and are free to make our own judgements.
Sitting down to such a lengthy film (think 'Watchmen,' only with much, much less violence) can be a daunting task, especially considering the subject matter, but the rewards are great. The performances are inspired, the characters all strangely familiar. The film doesn't go about creating intricate stories for each man, showing what they have to lose. Funnily enough, the film doesn't often say the men's names, a richly ironic stance considering how much history has forgotten them. This stance also helps show how an injustice can happen to any man, and that these were far from extraordinary men. They were peasants, commoners, who stood up, and accepted their fate for taking a stance.
It's somewhat amazing how unknown this film is, with virtually no IMDB votes to highlight its existence. 'Comrades' excels at portraying a class struggle from multiple angles, where common men swallow their pride and perform an extraordinary action, martyring themselves, losing their families, all in the name of brotherhood.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Comrades' arrives on Blu-ray, via the BFI, exclusively in the UK. This review copy is of the finished release, however, a few facets were not finalized. For example, the booklet (details of which are found in the extras) is printed on full page paper, as was the cover art. The discs themselves arrived sans artwork, as they are both pre-production discs, with details such as the disc creation date, version number, or product codes (BFIB1012D1/1.0 and BFIB1012D2/1.0), however all the content for the release found in stores is included.
'Comrades' arrives on Blu-ray via the BFI in a sparkling AVC MPEG-4 encode that defies the age of the film, with the clarity and cleanliness of a more modern release.
I've never much been a fan of the '80's film aesthetic, so full of soft, hazy films and bland earthy colors, but 'Comrades' is one to behold. The colors are naturally less than vibrant, much like the other films of the era, and hold an earthy, gritty feel, much like the film itself. The detail level is on the strong side, with blades of grass popping out cleanly, with an assortment of greens and withered whites, while tattered and worn clothing is a constant thing of beauty, so clearly destroyed. Facial features show off blemishes, wrinkles, pores, stubble, and even varying colors in sideburns with great intensity. The grain level hardly ever gets in the way of detail, though it does spike from time to time, though not for prolonged amounts of the lengthy film.
The source is strikingly clean, with only the occasional scratch, fleeting vertical line, or blip of dirt registering from time to time. Digital Noise Reduction isn't a culprit, as details never smear, and facial features are sharply defined, while DNR's cohort in crime, Edge Enhancement (such a vile fiend that it gets capital letters!) is also nowhere in sight.
There were a few softer shots mixed into the film that were a bit blurry, but they were quite minimal, so few and far between that they don't amount to squat. The picture does seem to have a flickering effect from time to time, as well as a stuttering issue at about the same interval. Delineation is less than strong, with shadows sucking detail right out of the picture, while skin tones were often a bit pale, especially for the women (and since we're talking about women in poverty, we're not talking about some period make-up).
The audio for 'Comrades' isn't as stellar as the video, with a lossless stereo mix in English as the only provided spoken track (there are few, not many, subtitle options, though). Dialogue comes out clear and is obviously prioritized, while there are plenty of atmospheric events lending realism to the onscreen happenings. No element of the sound mix drowns out any other. High end sounds were quite striking (startling me a few times), while low end is virtually non-existant. Additionally, some spoken words sounded hollow, like they were recorded in a hallway, despite the accompanying outdoor scenes. An acceptable no frills track.
The supplement package for 'Comrades' can be found on the single layer second disc, mirroring the day and date DVD release.
History is full of great true stories, and the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is one such tale that has been buried in time. Brilliant acting and beautiful direction create a film for the ages, a true cinematic giant. This Blu-ray sweetens the pot, with a strong presentation and fantastic set of extras. This one earns an easy recommendation, and has easily made me want to seek out the 'Bill Douglas Trilogy' that the BFI released in the UK alongside this screen gem.
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