Peterloo

**1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Peterloo
"In his desire to inform our heads, Leigh often forgets that he needs to engage our hearts us as well."

There's no doubting Mike Leigh's passion for the plight of the working man - and, noticeably woman - in his latest film. For every second of Peterloo's sprawling two hours and 34 minutes, he is aiming to educate us about the background to the 1819 massacre that left 18 peaceful protesters and an unborn child dead and scores more injured at a demonstration in Manchester for parliamentary representation. But in his desire to inform our heads, Leigh often forgets that he needs to engage our hearts us as well.

The story of political machinations and personal poverty spins out in two main arenas. One is Parliament, where gentry grow fat off the backs of the workers, with those in the Manchester mills viewed as we might consider aliens on the Moon. The other is the northern city itself, where we focus on Joseph (David Moorst) a bugler 'fresh' - raw would be a better word - home from Waterloo, his parents Nellie (Maxine Peake) and Joshua (Pearce Quigley) and their extended family. Also in Manchester, we meet the collection of townsmen and women who were rallying people to expect more from their paymasters and Parliament.

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Ironically, for a director who has always been concerned for the working class, his scope here is so big that the little guy gets lost in the crowd. The film proceeds largely via the way of speeches, which while giving the great and good of the British acting fraternity - including Karl Johnson and Rory Kinnear - a chance to show their mettle, feels drawn out to make sure we get the message when judicious editing would have given the pith some much-needed pace. We begin to crave the company of Nellie and her clan but even they are only glimpsed when Leigh has a point that he wishes to make. No scene seems inconsequential or everyday - every exchange is intended as a 'teaching moment', which diminishes the people to illustrations.

Cliche is just waiting to pounce on thinly drawn characters who, lacking substance in terms of scripting, are signalled by 'look'. This means that hardly anyone rich in the film is of normal size or countenance - as though they have all leapt straight from the pages of Punch. The gentry, including Tim McInnery flirting with pantomime as the foppish Prince Regent, are chiefly fat to the point of caricature, so that we are convinced of their greed, while the poor are thin and live on potato pie and 'ope.

Still, if they are sketched, they have been captured with a painterly eye by cinematographer Dick Pope - virtually every frame could be printed out and hung in the Rijksmuseum, where they would not look out of place nestling to the Dutch masters. The massacre when it finally arrives does capture the way that tragedy can unfold in such a way that people aren't aware of what's happening until it's too late. But, while there are plenty of arguments for keeping the blood to a minimum, there's an almost forced sterility here that feels slightly 'made for schools'. The idea of politicians being divorced from the proletariat is as much a concern for our times as the early 19th Century but Leigh's argument, though well-intentioned, never fully makes it down from the pulpit.

Reviewed on: 30 Oct 2018
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Peterloo packshot
Dramatisation of events surrounding hte 1819 Peterloo Massacre when a pro-democracy rally turn bloody as forces stormed the crowd.


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