Peterloo: Mike Leigh’s Strenuously Sprawling Political Drama (and One of Weakest Films)

At 75, Mike Leigh, one of Britain’s most prominent directors, continues to surprise by hoping from genre to genre, even if his real forte remains in making intimate-scale, character-driven dramas, laced with dark cynical humor, such as High Hopes, Life Is Sweet, Naked and Palme d’Or winner Secrets & Lies (for me, his best works).

Leigh’s latest, Peterloo, one of his weaker films in what is otherwise an impressive resume, arrives in Venice with extra-baggage, suffering from the stigma of being rejected by Cannes Film Fest, in a year in which the usually reliable Croisette event was not particularly strong (to say the least).

The same thing happened with Vera Drake, back in 2004 (which was rejected by Cannes and then played in Venice Fest, where it won the top award, the Golden Lion), except that Vera Drake is a better, more focused film than Peterloo.

Thus, if you go with low/lower expectations to see this political-battle feature, there are some rewards to be had, despite major shortcomings: excessive running time (154 minutes), overly episodic narrative, and most disappointing of all, lack of sharply-defined characters.  In other words, Leigh has aimed high but the ultimate accomplishment leaves much to be desired.  In moments (especially the first hour, there’s too much exposition, and the narrative comes across as too didactic, sort of pedagogy, perhaps a result of Leigh’s awareness that most viewers (UK included) have not even heard about this significant chapter in British history.

The film’s title derives from Manchester’s devastating 1819 Peterloo Massacre, in which the British Tory government ordered a brutal military action against working-class crowd of peaceful pro-democracy protesters.

Clearly, Leigh’s heart is in the right place, wishing to honor the tragic experience of those innocent victims, angry and desperate members of the underclasses. I was unfamiliar with the incident and had to concentrate hard to sort out the vast number of events and characters (perhaps too many for its own good). I learned more from reading the production notes after the screening than from what I saw on screen. For example, I was not aware that the class system at that time was composed of so many social strata and sub-strata.

The tale begins with David Moorst’s Joseph, the PTSD-stricken soldier son of a poor family of Manchester mill workers, going home after Britain’s Waterloo victory, Unfortunately, neither Joseph nor any of the other dramatis personae serve as protagonists, or offer a moral center through which spectators can relate to the tumultuous political events.

Angry and frustrated by various problems–devastating poverty, severe import restrictions, and the Parliament’s refusal to grant voting right, Joseph’s father Joshua (Pearce Quigley) joins, alongside with his sons, a group of radicals.

In contrast to the men, Joseph’s mother Nellie (Maxine Peake) is skeptical about the whole notion of resistance, which is in line of other Leigh movies, in which the women are more practical–and positively portrayed–than the mean.

Leigh then goes on to depict the various forces working against the Reformers, such as spies delivering reports, formal magistrates imposing sanctions.

Not helping matters dramatically are two other figures: Sir John Byng (Alastair Mackenzie), who’s appointed the Northern District commander, despite lack of political interest, and Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny), who comes across as grotesque caricature.

Soon the group realizes that Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), an upper-class member by birth but liberal in values, could be useful to them, and after listening to his eloquent address, they begin planning a peaceful demonstration in Manchester’s St. Peter’s Field.

Speculations were made after the screening as to how Leigh’s compatriot, Ken Loach (who’ older by seven years and has made several overtly political features, including his second Palme d’or winner, The Wind That Shakes the Barley) would have handled this material, which is more suitable to his politically-conscious orientation, thematic interests, and technical skills.