Based on the horrifying massacre of civilians by British troops at Peter’s Field in Manchester in 1819 (dubbed ‘Peterloo’ in mockery of the battle of Waterloo) Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is a lavish historical production.
From the outset, the film’s production design is utterly convincing and it’s good to see a British film get a big enough budget to deliver a convincing historical setting. You genuinely feel part of Manchester in the 1800s and can immediately relate to the film’s characters, but the film isn’t without its share of problems. Mike Leigh’s technical ability as a filmmaker is really beyond question and certainly no one should claim that art can’t be political but there is a point where this just goes a little too far and detracts from the film as a whole.
The film runs just shy of two and half hours and in reality, could have been much shorter. What feels like the entire first half of the film is taken up with characters delivering essentially the same rousing speech over and over again; the politics here might be sound but the massacre itself does a good enough job of highlighting the ills of the time. If you constantly ram a message down someone’s throat it rapidly becomes patronising, turns off your audience and in this case just makes the film a little boring for protracted periods.
Take the Manchester magistrates for example: they are all over-acting to the point of farce and rather than coming across as convincing, you feel they could have walked straight off a pantomime stage and into the film. That’s not to say the aristocracy of the time were nice people or to defend their actions in any way, it’s just doubtful they would be farting around sneering like Captain Hook at every opportunity. It’s counterproductive to put so much effort into the convincing period production design if the performances are so over the top that it takes you straight out of the action and detracts from the film’s authenticity.
What makes this harder to stomach is that there are a lot of good characters here that don’t get any time to breathe under the weight of politics. Maxine Peake is superb as the sceptical matriarch of the community, but she gets very little to do. In fact, the problem persists with most of the characters, the cast are excellent but outside of shouting to camera the film does very little to establish their motivation and back story.
None of this is to say that Peterloo is a bad film though, as it really isn’t; the film looks great and when we finally get to the massacre it’s a genuinely moving set piece. The lack of music drives home the horrifying scenes of violence and it’s here that the film really delivers its message.
It is a shame that the film feels so preachy and at times is hard to watch for all the wrong reasons. Objectively, it’s a solid film but one that feels difficult to recommend for any other reason than its technical prowess.
Author: Paul, Bath store