Peterloo - This Emotive But Polemical Movie Pretty Much Rocks
Dir: Mike Leigh
Starring Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, David Moorst, Tom Gill, Neil Bell
There’s a good deal of speechifying in Mike Leigh’s handsome recreation of the Massacre of Peterloo. Everyone herein likes the sound of their own voice and Leigh gives them plenty of opportunity to orate as he recreates the events that led to this historic atrocity of 1819. Despite the polemical nature of much that is said here (and often said more than once) Leigh orchestrates a powerful film that leads to a brutal and captivatingly dramatic climax.
It is the weeks and months after Waterloo, with PTSD-suffering soldiers retuning home to find their families struggling to survive as land owners bleed them try and repress the working classes. As the politicians dig in to maintain their power and position, the workers of Manchester are more and more turning to public meetings to voice their disaffection, leading to one big meeting at St Peter’s Field – with noted orator Henry Hunt (a splendidly pompous Kinnear) booked to speak – where tensions soon boil over and the military are deployed into the crowd, cutting down dozens of men, women and children in the process.
Set against this background (beautifully captured and lit by Dick Pope’s photography) Leigh marshals a large ensemble cast and group of characters, and whilst many of those on the side of reform espouse the same arguments repeatedly, the characters themselves are nicely delineated, with elements of class inequality even intruding within the side arguing for equality for all. Indeed many of Leigh’s favoured themes are clearly in evidence here, from class to family to social injustice, and it’s clear that the director is impassioned by the arguments he presents, and has long presented in many different forms over the length of his career.
There are times when the proselytising threatens to slow the movie down too much, but the filmmaker redeems himself with a brilliantly staged battlefield of chaos in the film’s last half hour. Whilst its budget doesn’t always match the scale of the event, the power, brutality and sense of random injustice he captures more than makes up for it.
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