Timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, this frustrating and flawed tribute to Britain’s 19th century working class is a mixed bag.
Old-school English writer, director and proud lefty Mike Leigh’s biggest production is handsome-looking and sometimes strongly-played but still spoiled by his irksome love of weirdly inappropriate comedy and caricature. Although best-known for a string of social-realism-type dramas, often with a shrill or sneering aspect (notably Naked, Secrets & Lies, Happy-Go-Lucky and Another Year), Leigh has also dabbled in period dramas and biopics with Topsy-Turvy and Mr. Turner, and this continues that trend while also making plenty of over-the-top power-to-the-people points.
Joseph (David Moorst) is introduced barely surviving the Battle of Waterloo and, broken and traumatised, he returns home by foot to Manchester, where he understandably falls apart and weeps in some of the best scenes in the whole movie. However, Leigh immediately sets about making heavy-handed contrasts between Joseph’s almost ridiculously salt-of-the-earth working-class family and the mean, grizzled old men in government, as they begin discussing how to quell what they see as dangerously insurrectionist and seditious behaviour. And if it sounds like this director is trying too hard to suggest that this is actually all about 2019, not 1819, then you’d be right.
Meetings of working men (no women allowed!) are attended by agitators like Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell) and spied on by the authorities, and Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson acting like he’s in a horror movie, which he is, kind of) becomes increasingly concerned. After all, if civilians want better work conditions and pay then surely they’ll soon start wanting the vote, and to play a greater role in government, and to hold politicians to account, and so forth. And we can’t have that!
A rock thrown at the carriage of the Prince Regent is used as an excuse to properly try and squash a planned demonstration at St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester, where Leigh naturally filmed the massacre scenes. And is there some strange joke in casting Tim McInnerny, former star of TV’s Black Adder, as the nincompoop Prince? And why does Leigh allow him to ham it up so hugely?
When the massacre begins and the yeomanry step in with sabers and guns, it initially feels as chaotic and terrifying as the real event must have been, and proves to be the only real sequence of bloodthirsty violence in Leigh’s whole filmography. And yet this is compromised too: as preening orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear, who wrote some of his own speeches) addresses the crowd even as the attack kicks in, the punters at the back struggle to hear him, and it’s hard not to think of the opening of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian.
Despite recently turning 76, Leigh’s righteous fury remains in pretty much full force, but it’s always a curious experience watching any Mike Leigh movie, as the brilliant and the awful frequently sit side by side in the same scene – or even the same shot. Many will find the ending here abrupt and puzzling, and yet, after 154 minutes, it’s a relief that the thing is finally finished.
Peterloo (M) is in cinemas now