'Peterloo': Film Review | Venice 2018

A worthy but heavy-handed history lesson.

Mike Leigh commemorates an infamous 19th century massacre in this Amazon-backed historical epic, the most ambitious and expensive film of his career.

Veteran British director Mike Leigh returns to early 19th century England for his latest historical epic, though the social and political context of Peterloo is very different from that of his critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated 2014 biopic, Mr. Turner. Dramatizing a notorious massacre of pro-democracy protesters that took place in his home city of Manchester in 1819, the 75-year-old Leigh is working with the largest budget and broadest canvas of his career here. The ambition is wholly laudable, the execution less so.

Earning its colloquial name in somber homage to the battle of Waterloo four years earlier, the Peterloo massacre remains a contentious topic in British political circles. There is an ongoing campaign to establish a permanent memorial on the Manchester site. Arriving just in time to commemorate the 200th anniversary, Leigh's film is, surprisingly, the first cinematic treatment of these momentous events. World premiering in competition in Venice today, followed by a Manchester gala launch next month, this Amazon-backed production is scheduled for U.K. and U.S. theatrical release in early November.

Peterloo has been the subject of much negative speculation since its surprise exclusion from Cannes, where Leigh has a long prize-winning track record. Sadly, the naysayers were not far wrong, because this sprawling passion project is oddly low on passion, falling uneasily between starchy historical pageant and tub-thumping polemical melodrama. The intent is noble and the attention to detail admirable, but the overall effect is obstinately unmoving. School teachers may find Peterloo useful as an educational aid, but as politically charged human drama, it falls disappointingly flat. With a mixed critical reception and only minor star names in the cast, box office is likely to fall short of previous Leigh releases.

Book-ended by two spectacular battle sequences, Peterloo initially seems to promise a sweeping epic on a Saving Private Ryan scale as cameras swoop and whirl through the carnage of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Stumbling through the heaped corpses and smoking debris, shell-shocked young British army conscript Joseph (David Moorst) begins the long trudge home to his native Manchester.

Meanwhile, back home, Joseph's father, Joshua (Pierce Quigley), and mother, Nellie (Maxine Peake), are part of a growing movement of working-class reformers fighting for higher wages and greater democratic representation in a city transformed by the Industrial Revolution, where wealthy cotton barons lord over armies of destitute mill workers. Due to unfair laws and taxes on grain, landowners are becoming richer while the poor starve. But any desperate souls caught stealing a loaf of bread face a long jail term, deportation to Australia or even hanging.

As the Manchester reform movement gathers momentum, the Westminster political elite begins to fear a homegrown repeat of the still-fresh French Revolution. Prime Minister Lord Liverpool (Robert Wilfort), Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson) and military commander Gen. Sir John Byng (Alastair Mackenzie) clamp down on agitators using double agents, surveillance and increasingly draconian laws. A comically trivial attack on the clownish prince regent (Tim MacInnerny), in which a potato strikes his royal coach, gives the authorities further excuse to curtail civil liberties.

Irresistible force finally meets immovable object on Aug. 16, 1819, when the reformers organize a massive public rally on St. Peter's Field, a large urban square on the southern side of Manchester. Joseph, Nellie and Joshua join a crowd of around 80,000 to hear star speaker Henry Hunt (James Bond regular Rory Kinnear), a pompous but progressive-minded landowner from southwest England.

Cautious organizers take great pains to ensure the rally is peaceful and lawful, with thousands of families attending in their Sunday finery. Even so, soon after Hunt takes the stage, nervous magistrates summon the local military guard to arrest him and disperse the mob. When cavalry officers charge the crowd with sabers drawn, the square becomes a bloodbath. At least 15 people are fatally stabbed, crushed, shot and trampled. Over 600 more are injured.

Considering his lack of experience as an action director, Leigh shoots this climactic battle with impressively visceral, kinetic energy. But the two-hours-plus preamble to the massacre is another story, an interminable slog through long passages of dry exposition, clunky dialogue and plodding plot mechanics. Leigh's commitment to an exacting social-realist aesthetic has long been an asset in his contemporary tragicomedies, but it hobbles him here, where the crushing weight of history ultimately has a dampening affect on dramatic tension. At least a dozen main characters, some only half-realized, rob the story of any clear emotional focus. Narrative momentum gets lost in an endless parade of whiskers, wigs and waistcoats.

Leigh's perennial weakness for heavy-handed caricature is also a liability here. The working-class victims of Peterloo are unanimously depicted as simple souls with hearts of gold; the establishment figures are sneering gargoyles given to callous outbursts like, "It is our Christian duty to bring the ax down on this riotous mob!" McInnerny's camp, cackling royal fop would look exaggerated in a Monty Python comedy. Most historians agree Peterloo was a clear-cut example of class war against the poor, but Leigh lays the message down in chokingly thick layers, reducing complex events to a monochrome clash of good and evil with scant dramatic texture.

As an overall viewing experience, Peterloo is not without its pleasures. As he did on Mr. Turner, cinematographer Dick Pope transforms a series of 19th century interiors into Old Master paintings with flickering candlelight and lyrical shadowplay. Handsome aerial footage of the picturesque moorland overlooking Manchester is also a nice touch, as is Leigh's sporadic use of folk songs to illustrate the drama, though both are too sparingly deployed.

Peake and Kinnear are always compelling performers, even when chewing their way through leaden, mirthless dialogue. Hardcore fans may also relish spotting cameos by numerous veteran Leigh collaborators amid the huge ensemble cast. For a more niche audience, scholars of antique northern English slang will enjoy hearing arcane terms such as "skrike" (cry) and "mithering" (fussing) receive a rare big-screen airing. Much bemused bafflement is guaranteed for viewers in other regions.

But whatever its charms, there is no escaping the overall sense of Peterloo as a prosaic, cumbersome misfire that mistakes bigness for greatness. The film's abrupt finale also gives little sense of what followed the massacre, which led to further government crackdowns in the short term but also inspired a wave of public protests, the founding of the Guardian newspaper and Shelley's famous poem The Masque of Anarchy. Oddly, Leigh does not even name the 15 official victims in his perfunctory wrap-up, just another missed opportunity among many. After 200 years, the unquiet ghosts of St. Peter's Field deserve a better movie memorial than this.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Thin Man Films, Amazon Studios, Film 4, BFI, Lipsync
Cast: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, David Moorst, Rachel Finnegan, Tom Meredith, Karl Johnson, Tim McInnerny
Director, screenwriter: Mike Leigh
Producer: Georgina Rowe
Cinematographer: Dick Pope
Editor: Jon Gregory
Production designer: Suzie Davies
Costume designer: Jacqueline Durran
Music: Gary Yershon
Sales company: Cornerstone Films, London
154 minutes