Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Movie Review: Peterloo

Peterloo ** / *****
Directed by: Mike Leigh.
Written by: Mike Leigh.
Starring: Rory Kinnear (Henry Hunt), Maxine Peake (Nellie), Pearce Quigley (Joshua), David Moorst (Joseph), Rachel Finnegan (Mary), Tom Meredith (Robert), Simona Bitmate (Esther), Robert Wilfort (Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister), Karl Johnson (Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary), Sam Troughton (Mr. Hobhouse), Roger Sloman (Mr. Grout), Kenneth Hadley (Mr. Golightly), Tom Edward-Kane (Mr. Cobb), Lizzy McInnerny (Mrs. Moss), Alastair Mackenzie (General Sir John Byng), Neil Bell (Samuel Bamford), Lisa Millett (Jemima Bamford), Philip Jackson (John Knight), John-Paul Hurley (John Thacker Saxton), Tom Gill (Joseph Johnson), Lizzie Frain (Mrs. Johnson), Harry Hepple (James Wroe), Ian Mercer (Dr. Joseph Healey), Adam Long (Wroe's Printer), Nico Mirallegro (John Bagguley), Danny Kirrane (Samuel Drummond), Johnny Byrom (John Johnston), Victor McGuire (Deputy Chief Constable Nadin), Stephen Wight (Oliver The Spy), Ryan Pope (Chippendale The Spy), Tim McInnerny (Prince Regent), Marion Bailey (Lady Conyngham). 
Mike Leigh is of course one of the best British directors of his generation – and he’s barely set a foot wrong over the years. He is no stranger to sprawling films with lots of characters in them – but even when he does something like that, his focus remains firmly on the characters – on the people involved, so there is an intimacy to the films, no matter how many characters there are. He has not really attempted an epic quite like Peterloo before – and given that it the weakest of all his films that I have seen, he perhaps never will again (not to mention that it was one of the more expensive films the usually thrifty Leigh has made). The film is about the events leading up to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre – where British soldiers attacked a group of pro-democracy protesters, leading 18 dead, and many others wounded. But Leigh makes a fundamental mistake in structuring his film – there are speeches, a lot of speeches – in Peterloo, and unless handled well, speeches are more often than not dramatically inert. Even when there is talking, there are so many characters its nearly impossible to keep track of them all, and the conversations are dense and uninteresting. It’s also visually uninteresting, as more often than not everyone is just standing around grandstanding at each other.
Apparently Leigh has long dreamed of making this movie. And the story is interesting – and the massacre itself is a key moment in class warfare in England, and around the world really, well before those ideas were taking hold in many areas. What Leigh sets out to do is basically show you everything – the efforts of the workers in Northern England – who wanted better pay and better working conditions, and their grassroots movements that those desires spawned. He wants to show the effect of war on those returning home – wounded, and unable to work. He wants to show women as the backbone of these family units. He wants to show how some journalists took to the cause, and fought to get these stories to their readership. He wants to show how a few members of the Upper Class took to the cause as well – which is why Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) ends up as the closest thing resembling a lead in the movie. Hunt has more of a platform from which to speak – but he also perhaps a little naïve. He certainly doesn’t understand the workers he is fighting for – and when he has to say with a family for a week leading up to a key speech, he is endlessly polite, but he cannot help but show this isn’t the type of accommodations he is used to. Eventually, he will depict members of the upper class – in the closing scenes, even members of the Royal Family, and his disdain for them is over-the-top, and it shows in their depiction.
Because Leigh wants to show so much, what basically ends up happening in Peterloo is two hours of people explaining things to the audience, following by the Massacre itself, and then those closing scenes. I will say that the Massacre is depicted very well by Leigh – who hasn’t staged something like it before, and shows that he has the chops. It is violent, bloody and terrifying – and it hits you hard.
Everything is rather inert though, and Leigh sometimes comes across as fairly condescending to the audience, who he spends far too much time holding their hands, and explaining things to as if they were children. Had he made a more engaging film, this wouldn’t be necessary. Leigh is, of course, a great filmmaker. See Naked, Secrets and Lies, Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year or Mr. Turner for examples of just what a great filmmaker he can be. Here though, he got to make the film he had been wanting to make for years, and kind of proves why it took him so long to make it.


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