Peterloo, review: Mike Leigh’s historical epic is rewarding – if unapologetically ambitious ****

September 4, 2018

Peterloo, review: Mike Leigh’s historical epic is rewarding – if unapologetically ambitious ****

September 4, 2018

By Robbie Collin | The Telegraph

Every Mike Leigh film is a period film: it’s just that his period of choice is normally the present. The 75-year-old British filmmaker recreates his characters’ worlds with such diligence, and a magpie eye for telling details in setting and speech, that each project plays like a cine-time capsule, brimful of the peculiar truth of its moment. That’s what gives his historical dramas their uniquely lived-in feel: to watch his 1991 Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy or 2014’s career-crowning Mr Turner is to be immersed in their characters’ lives, not just their stories.

Leigh’s new film Peterloo, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Friday afternoon, is a little different. Immersive, yes – thanks to some key long-term collaborators (cinematographer Dick Pope, costume designer Jacqueline Durran, composer Gary Yershon) and his unique, improvisation-based rehearsal method, which gives every individual scene that trademark Leigh dramatic fluency and snap.

But the scope this time is so dizzying, it should properly be described as a historical epic. It is a dramatisation of the circumstances leading to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which a crowd of between 60,000 and 80,000 civilians protesting for better political representation at St Peter’s Field in Manchester were attacked by the cavalry and yeomanry, leaving 15 dead and up to 700 injured. Staunchly socialist in tenor, it is by some distance Leigh’s most overtly political film, although its contemporary relevance is largely left up to the individual – you could use it to argue any which way on Brexit – and its polemics are tempered by some acutely observed comedy and a battery of terrific performances from the enormous cast.

In fact, the main problem with Peterloo is also one of the biggest things in its favour: its account of the particular social climate that led to the massacre is so all-encompassing that the film’s first half is basically homework for the second, as the stage is set and the numerous players arranged. By my count, the film juggles half a dozen initially disparate narratives, some with double-figure casts, which all have to be developed then brought together for the film’s end (I was glad to be taking notes).

The film begins on the sodden fields of Waterloo: it is 1815, and Napoleon and the French army have just been routed. The camera finds Joseph (David Moorst), a soldier stumbling around the aftermath in his bright red tunic – an item of clothing Leigh will later turn into a potent symbol of the rank-and-file’s betrayal by the ruling classes. Joseph returns to his mother Nellie (Maxine Peake) in Manchester just as General Sir John Byng (Alastair Mackenzie), commander of the 2nd Guards Brigade at Waterloo, is dispatched to the north of England by Lord Sidmouth (an outstanding Karl Johnson), the Home Secretary, to deal with “a sickness – a dangerous threat of rampant insurrection” that is brewing on the far side of the Pennines.

Lancashire reformers Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell) and Joseph Healey (Ian Mercer) travel to London to listen to the radical speaker Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), then plan to bring Hunt north with the assistance of journalists on the Manchester Observer for a grand rally – the event at which the attendees will be eventually attacked by forces of the state. Many discussions and speeches ensue, some more entertaining than others, but the film’s underlying comic heartbeat can generally be heard thudding throughout. In a sequence that plays like a Recency-themed episode of The Thick of It, a coterie of magistrates, including Leigh regular Martin Savage, fret about how to disperse the crowd, wielding a copy of the Riot Act slightly bigger than a playing card. And there is a very Blackadder-esque appearance from Tim McInnery – formerly Lord Percy – as the balloon-like and blithering Prince Regent. It is impasto filmmaking from Leigh – the laying on of layer upon knobbly layer until the whole landscape coheres.

Late in the film, Leigh makes the ingenious choice to mask Hunt’s much-touted rally speech with ambient chatter, and instead focuses on the crowd: Peake’s family sharing their bread with a brother and sister who “walked all the way from Wigan”. Here, the film suggests, lies the event’s true significance as a coming-together of a working class who were newly resolved to stand up for their interests.

There is a danger of filing Peterloo away as an “important film” – but it is also a complex, rousing and rewarding one for anyone prepared to meet it on its own unapologetically ambitious terms.

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