See!?! America’s not all that bad after all!
On August 16, 1819, at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester calvary soldiers shot into a crowd of unnarmed citizens, killing 18, and injuring nearly 700. Basically, it was a dark day for England, but how did they get there? Better yet, who was to blame? Why? And above all of this, whose lives were lost on that one tragic afternoon, when everyone there thought they were seeing a new political prospect in Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), only to then realize that they would be blown away by a possibly tyrannical government and the soldiers that listen to the beck and call without judgement.
Probably since Topsy-Turvy, does it seem like writer/director Mike Leigh is really stretching himself and seeing just what the hell he can do with his trademark naturalistic, improvised-style, in what may be his most ambitious movie. Cause while Leigh has done period-pieces of this nature before, he’s never really mapped it all out quite like he’s done here, with three, almost four, different subplots going on at once. Why is this? Well, it’s obviously to give us a much better idea of what led to the Peterloo Massacre and the machinations of getting all of these people into this one space, therefore allowing the massacre to happen.
But sometimes, it’s just hard to make something so dry, work.
And in the case of Peterloo, the material that Leigh has to work with (talking about trade-tariffs, Parliament, etc.), doesn’t fully get Peterloo going until it’s very, very late in the game. And for a movie that’s nearly two-and-a-half-hours, that is a bit of a problem when all you’re really waiting for is the massacre itself. Sure, you want to get to know these characters you’re introduced to and why this is all happening, but sometimes, it’s really hard to feel any sense of emotion or excitement when you’re watching an hour or so of people giving speeches to crowds.
Which is why Peterloo feels like a brief misstep in the career of Leigh, who still brings his signature and interesting style to this movie, but at the same time, feels like he’s a bit tampered by the utter dryness this material brings. Is it really his fault? Kind of, but not really. He could have made a bunch of stuff up for dramatic-effect, but it would have been obvious and too much of a trick, which is something Leigh doesn’t do; so instead, he opts for the more boring option of telling us what happened, the way it probably did.
Not the best kind of drama one could ask for, but it is drama nonetheless.
Regardless, Peterloo does pick up about halfway through and then you really see a master-at-play with Leigh. Sure, it may be a bit late to the game by then, but what Leigh shows with the massacre, is his willingness to handle big set-pieces and still maintain that small, intimate, almost claustrophobic feel. It does help that everything from head-to-toe of Peterloo is steeped in absolute flair, giving it a realistic look and feel, and therefore, drawing us closer into the world Leigh is depicting. It’s hard not to be upset and shocked by what we see, which is why it’s all the more of a shame that Leigh had us waiting for so long in the first place.
Oh well. Take a history-buff to it. Maybe they’ll get a kick out of it.
Consensus: While he’s definitely trying something a bit new, Mike Leigh unfortunately doesn’t bring much emotion to Peterloo, all up into the fateful last-act.
6 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Amazon Studios