08th May2019

‘Peterloo’ Review

by Jak-Luke Sharp

Stars: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Neil Bell, Pearce Quigley, David Moorst, Rachel Finnegan, Tom Meredith, Simona Bitmate, Robert Wilfort, Karl Johnson, Sam Troughton, Roger Sloman, Kenneth Hadley, Tom Edward-Kane | Written and Directed by Mike Leigh

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Peterloo is the latest film directed by British auteur Mike Leigh and is his second-period piece in the last five years, after his critically acclaimed epic Mr Turner, released in 2014. Premiering on what will be the 200th anniversary of the relatively unknown British tragedy of the same name, occurring in the year of 1819 in Manchester. It is a rather timely release considering only 200 years later the British people are once again in a traumatising political disposition considering the deliberating reasoning of Brexit, although I’m sure this is no coincidence on Leigh’s part. Peterloo covers the days and ultimately the harrowing event itself with a massive British ensemble with pretty much every single UK actor who has been on the television and independent film circuit in the last twenty years. Leigh’s film is a brutal and honest examination of the horrifying austerity engulfed by the British elite. It’s a passionate and beautiful looking film that will make your blood boil with the sheer manner of injustice.

As stated above, Peterloo is an ensemble piece. There is no one lead character or central arc in which the film solely follows. It’s a linear story with multiple branches of arcs that lead to one tragic moment. Now, this can often cause a few problems in narratives because ultimately the film lacks a sole protagonist or antagonist, and there is no clear depiction of who the film should root for, nor is there an individual character that the audience can resonate with, aside from of course the larger sides of good and bad. This, often enough, is usually framed as an issue, but with a stellar cast and an intriguing narrative, a film can often substitute such and still be incredibly invigorating to watch. Thankfully Peterloo falls in the latter’s case.

With such a large cast list you’re thrust into this bigger picture with small intricate delicate nuances of ordinary daily lives being lived. It’s a beautifully subtle texture the film inhabits, and you slowly begin to align yourself in these, often desperate, characters live in which they’re plagued with poverty and austerity by the elites, grafting for their next meal, while their overlords are indulging in the excess of privilege. There are some notable appearances in this cast list from the likes of Rory Kinnear and Maxine Peake who are both terrific, especially the latter who is finally getting the much-deserved praise for her talent after her breakthrough hit Funny Cow. A truly formidable actress who is tantalising on screen. Peake is incredibly captivating with these rich characters she plays, that admittedly does beg the question from a narrative point of view why she wasn’t the sole lead in this? Although it is understandable why the film can’t rest on the actress’ shoulders, concerning the context of the Peterloo event itself and how it came to this point of tragedy. Writer/director Leigh had to cover a vast amount of exposition and incentive for the plot to keep moving and presumably the lead to the influx of a multitude of characters.

That being said, a vast amount of characters, you are therefore left with a vast amount of dialogue, and this isn’t your ordinary 21st-century picture. It’s an early 19th century situated plot in which these characters speak in unusually constructed vocabulary and broad northern accents. Now the former, for your more international audiences won’t necessarily hinder the experience. Granted, it’s a distinctive tongue but ultimately the wordplay doesn’t affect the engagement and development of the plot. The latter, however, may perhaps hinder a few people’s experiences. The northern dialect for one is going to be a barrier for some who aren’t necessarily used to such a distinctive palette of accent. It isn’t unintelligible, far from it, but it will crop up as an issue, of which is slightly unfair on the casting, and on Leigh’s part. Both admittedly put so much effort for authenticity in place to create a life in this experience and the end result is outstanding.

The cinematography and the lighting throughout are absurdly breath-taking. The former by usual Leigh cinematographer Dick Pope is nothing short of fabulous. It’s warm and inviting with a wonderful pop of colour, especially that of green. You can also just about catch the fibres in the air the picture looks that stunning. The clarity of the image is one thing but the manner of how the light is caught is mesmerising. It’s a dazzling image that has its own life and with a warmth that inhabits these family’s houses, that in the long reverberate and echo’s the tragedy that befalls these innocent peoples. However, there are slight niggles here. For one the running time clocks in at a cracking one hundred and fifty minutes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s long, it’s really long, but it just about savours itself for that last thirty minutes with a multitude of character development and layers in the previous two hours makes that final climax all the more disturbing and haunting. Yet the film doesn’t have any resolution. Nothing that speaks for what came after, or any ramifications or legalities that befell this monstrous act. The film just sort of ends with a simplistic fade to black without any text to soften or harden the blow. It feels slightly empty and hollow, with Leigh missing that final killing blow for his audience to be left in pieces.

Peterloo is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital now.

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