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Peterloo review - a beautifully furious film


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Verdict: A beautiful, furious film, but if Mike Leigh was hoping to convert viewers to the cause of opposing iniquities in the present day, then the accessibility of this slow, long film may be an issue in converting those other than the choir.

The first thing that strikes you about Peterloo is that aesthetically, this film is lavishly historical, minutely detailed, and so utterly immersed in its setting that you wouldn’t believe for a second that this isn’t an actual slice of history. 

Beyond the visual, there is also a fascination with rhetoric, and the powerful sway which ideas held over the conflicted time following the French revolution. Huge swathes of the film are given over to eloquent oration from all sides of the debate, delivered from a series of absolutely fantastic performances, such that we the cinema audience are somehow included in the pub- or meeting hall-audience of nineteenth century workers.

What’s also astounding is the arresting way in which era-defining figures are plucked from history and appear in the film as if accidentally stumbled upon in their natural habitat – Samuel Bamford, Henry Hunt, the Prince Regent, and Lord Liverpool, among many others, are presented with utter conviction. The mystifyingly potent oration is of course wonderfully contrasted with the ignorant brutality of the enemies of the reformation. Everything is elevated in opposition.

Of course, there is an element in which this power and passion creates characters who are larger than life: Reformers who are impossibly humble and noble, Tories who are impossibly callous and alien in their upper-class mannerisms. Some of the acting tends towards the melodramatic, particularly in this latter group of fusty aristocrats, brutal sergeants and leering minions of the establishment. The ruling class characters are wonderfully grotesque creations who really make your skin crawl.

There are ways in which Peterloo juggles being totally historical and totally propagandistic, and in this way it provides an essential fairy-tale origin myth for what lead actor Maxine Peake called our ‘distressing’ times.

This film can’t really be discussed without its domestic core – the family life of Nellie (Maxine Peake’s character) of modest means and humility. The family are acted with compassion and warmth, and they brilliantly act as the focus point of the more abstract, political concerns of the film, and in many ways act as the bridge between not just the personal and political, but between the past and present.

There’s a cinematic language of broken Britain recognisable from I, Daniel Blake (2016) and Phil Collins’ Ceremony (2017) which turns Shelley’s address to the ‘Men of England’ who ‘weave with toil and care / The rich robes your tyrants wear’ to directly interrogate us in the 21st Century. Perhaps it was un-coincidental that the trailers quoted the lines of Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy’, written in reference to Peterloo about chains and lions, which Corbyn thundered at Glastonbury in 2017.

However, the wide array of concerns explored in painstaking documentary-syle detail  make Peterloo a slow burn, and sometimes it does feel stuck. Peterloo perhaps addresses an audience assumed to be engaged already, and therefore does little work to keep the viewer interested. Regardless of how artful and beautiful the film is, during the first half you will get bored at times. Tragically some of the film’s most beautiful and affecting imagery carries little of the plot.

There’s a sense in which Peterloo feels less curated, and that we aren’t rushed through a plot by a totalitarian director. Rather, we are meandering through a gallery of interesting images at a pace which the director charitably (or patronisingly) sets as slow enough for us to take everything in. This is unfortunately to the extent that sometimes we as audience wish we could rush the film, and it’s essentially up to you decide whether this counts seriously against the film and your enjoyment of it, or lends again to the sense of narrative rhythm, in which the climax of the Peterloo Massacre offers a strange form of fulfilling catharsis.

Peterloo is undeniably furious, and it is amazing the way in which an apathetic camera locked, immobile, on an image of pity or oppression can somehow convey to its audience the fury that destitution or in. Leigh’s eye is unflinching, objective – but one should be wary of anything which tries to present itself as objective. Nonetheless, there’s something unnerving about not having the Saving Private Ryan, heroic-tragic treatment to senseless slaughter, instead having it filmed through a camera which doesn’t waver, and in some ways doesn’t care.

Peterloo is in cinemas on November 2nd.


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