Mike Leigh’s Peterloo hit cinemas nationwide on November 2nd and Duke of York’s Picturehouse bestowed us with the pleasure of witnessing the film on the big screen. Does it sit amongst the prestigious filmmaker’s previous works? Or, in the film’s own terms, has this icon finally “tied his own noose”?

In a recent interview with The Guardian newspaper, director Mike Leigh stated that the massacre at St. Peters Field should be met with greater emphasis in the British educational system, an event “which resonated down the 19th century into the 20th century in the context of democracy and suffrage”. As such, the legendary filmmaker has chosen to take the weight of the burden upon himself, delivering a 154 minute epic that ultimately drowns under its own sense of self-worth. 

Peterloo is an incredibly frustrating piece of cinema for a multitude of reasons. Leigh lavishes the production with beautiful design, in costumes and sets that echo the period beautifully. The climax, in which government forces attack 60,000 poverty-ridden protesters, is splendidly choreographed chaos that fills the viewer’s stomach with horror and dread. In such sequence, the fellow Mancunian’s direction is incessantly claustrophobic, staining the consciousness with repugnant imagery despite its fleeting nature. It is, therefore, baffling that we must sit through a begrudgingly uninspired two hours to reach this point.

Ultimately, Peterloo’s storytelling prowess is equivalent to one of a historical textbook; a film that is shockingly surface-level and demands more of a human touch. Structurally, Leigh’s film is maddening. It insists upon scene-after-scene of characters standing in front of a crowd in a dingy room, proclaiming for change. Leigh commits to this monotonous design for the entire first half, never contributing anything new to the discourse. As a result, any shot with gorgeous countryside (or just the sun for that matter) is greeted with the equal pleasure of stepping outside in reality. 

In addition, Leigh’s choice to present the class divide in a purely dichotomous fashion is incredibly simplistic and problematic. This is not to say that the upper classes shouldn’t be held accountable for their crimes, this should be Peterloo’s paramount intent. The problem lies in a caveman-like approach that is so redundant that it falls on deaf ears. Tim McInnerny is clearly comfortable as the ‘Prince Regent’, being that his performance is a misjudged throwback to his Black-adder years, resulting in a terrible tonal clash between pantomime scenery chewing and deeply serious subject matter.

Such limited characterisation continues with the lower-class characters. The closest we receive to realised characters are in Rory Kinnear’s ‘Henry Hunt’ and David Moorst’s ‘Joseph’. The former becomes embroiled in a debate with fellow march orchestrator ‘Joshua’ (portrayed by Pearce Quigley) on the subject of the protest resulting in violence, supplying Hunt with humanity and consideration for his fellow man. Joseph is a former soldier, spat out by the grisly Battle of Waterloo, only to find that the true battlefield was to be found in his own home. It matters little, however, for these characters are never gifted with their deserved screen time, as the film shifts focus to other members of its endless cast. 

Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is perhaps attempting to provide an all-encapsulating presentation of an historical event, akin to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. However, it remains to be a deeply frustrating piece of cinema where everyone (Leigh included) deserved better. Whilst not quite being the director’s Waterloo, it would be advised to research this important event yourself.

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Categories: Arts Theatre

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