There was a possibility that a film about the Tolpuddle Martyrs would have me flashing back to Standard Grade History (thankfully, no cholera was involved). But Bill Douglas’ final film, made in 1986, is engrossing and fascinating, if rather over-long to be watched in the uncomfortable seating of the Filmhouse’s Screen 2.
There’s a slightly stylised structure to the story, framed by the recurring appearance of future Taggart actor Alex Norton in a series of roles around pre-cinematic visual entertainment – lantern shows, shadow puppets, etc. But – partly because I’m a geek and I love that sort of thing – it never feels like it’s being too clever
Great ensemble cast (inc. Imelda Staunton as the wife of George Loveless, and Keith Allen when he was still charismatic and intense, instead of a complete ham) and some truly random cameos (inc. Barbara Windsor, adding a distinctly Carry On air to her scenes, but also Vanessa Redgrave and Edward Fox in the latter half of the film.)
It’s clearly a heartfelt political film, which could be problematic even if you agree with the sentiment – the politics are very explicitly stated. Coupled with the slightly stylised storytelling (particularly in the later scenes in Australia, where the characters are in different places and the story becomes disjointed), the film could collapse under it’s own weight. But it’s so confident in itself that you get used to the eccentricities, and it’s grounded in the strong ensemble performances.