Mike Leigh’s last film, 2014’s Mr. Turner, was a lush biopic about the final decades of painter J.M.W. Turner’s life, with British character actor Timothy Spall elevated to a lead role that garnered critical acclaim (including a Best Actor award out of Cannes). Before that, Sally Hawkins won a Golden Globe for her part in 2008’s quirky, heartfelt Happy-Go-Lucky as an eternally optimistic woman, for better or worse. Dig deeper into Leigh’s filmography and titles like Vera Drake and Secrets & Lies pop out as impressive reminders of just what he’s created over the last several decades.
Unfortunately, Leigh’s latest offering, a bloated period piece about the 1819 massacre at a pro-democracy rally in Manchester, England, won’t be remembered as one of his career highlights. Peterloo, for which Leigh also wrote the script, ostensibly sets out to transplant its audience immediately to a Dickensian-style era from the outset. A brief prologue card places us in the years after the Battle of Waterloo, as England struggles to bounce back from the cost of war, both in human lives and resources. In the following scenes, we meet a number of working-class citizens in and around Manchester, each doing their best to scrape by. At the market, a woman trades her shepherd’s pie for a few fresh eggs; when she can’t barter in this way, she brings her pathetic-looking young daughter in order to play on the vendors’ sympathies.
This is the first of many stumbles in Peterloo, as the film is so drab and unremarkable both in visuals—all beiges and grays—and casting, with so many players without any distinguishing characteristics, that it becomes impossible to care about any of it at all. Don’t ask for any names or other identifying traits; I was paying attention, and I still couldn’t tell you. Rory Kinnear eventually joins the proceedings as Henry Hunt, a real-life orator of the time who traveled the country peacefully rallying common people in favor of parliamentary reform. Hunt’s contribution to organizing and carrying out the rally of August 16 is perhaps the only clear plot line in the film’s laborious 154 minutes; Leigh’s attempt to weave in the opposition of the town’s upper class elites is at best a farce, at worst a tragic tonal miscalculation. Watching these stuffy old men huff and puff from their parlors, devising any number of plots to break up the rally, plays much more silly than one assumes the filmmaker intended.
By the time the film plods toward the actual ill-fated rally, the lack of focus that leads up to it means Leigh has to shift between a cumbersome number of subplots to keep everything straight, and even he seems to strain under the weight of it all. The brutal few minutes of the actual massacre aren’t easy to watch; whether we can remember who all the characters are or not, it’s still painful to see innocent people slaughtered simply because they dared to assemble and lobby their government for change.
As is, Peterloo takes on far too much—too many characters, too many conflicting plot lines—to ever hope to have any kind of collective impact. As a historical event that no doubt was the result of socio-political policies and factors that built up over years, the victims of that August day in Manchester deserve a historically accurate, emotionally poignant retelling. Like his previous films, Leigh may have been better off to shift his focus to just one protagonist. A film about Hunt in particular, for example, and his role in the day’s happenings. Perhaps then Kinnear could have anticipated a career boost equal to his predecessors; unfortunately, that won’t be the takeaway this time around.
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