An odd irony drives “Peterloo” forward. Mike Leigh’s expansive, exhaustive, and extraordinarily thorough portrait of early 19th-century political activism is, to put it one way, deliberate in pace and tone. To put it bluntly — and in an argot more readily familiar to its cast of working-class characters — the film is bloody well dull.
But to the film’s measured credit, it somehow manages to use that very dullness in its favor, almost turning it as an advantage. Think of “Peterloo,” with its sprawling cast and volumes of political oratory, as the prestige-pic equivalent of a public library: It leaves plenty of ideas out on display, and offers ample quiet spots in which to think about them.
The film starts — and ends — with a bang. It’s 1815 and the Battle of Waterloo has just come to a close, leaving England victorious in their nearly two-decades-long war with France. Leigh picks things up from the battlefield (there’s something you never thought you’d see—a Mike Leigh war sequence!), setting his sights on young soldier Joseph (David Moorst). Left behind by his battalion, Joseph has to hoof it on foot (and, one imagines, boat) from Belgium back to his modest family homestead in rural Northern England.
Meanwhile, in London, the House of Commons votes to award victorious general the Duke of Wellington nearly 1 million pounds from the public treasury, in thanks for his service. The rich get richer and the poor get stranded on the battlefield in Leigh’s film (and, you know, in life) and it won’t be the last time in this narrative that the working poor get the left behind by those ostensibly supposed to lead them.
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Leigh checks back in with Joseph and the young man’s tightknit family all the way through the two-and-a-half hour film, but no single character or clan ever takes center stage. A leftist through and through, the director believes in the power of the collective and his sprawling cast reflects as much. “Peterloo” quite ecumenically divides its attention among every member of this hardscrabble northern community, following printer, punter, and preacher alike into their kitchens and bedrooms and rowdy town square as they deal with high taxes and low wages and a governing class that quite openly despises them.
To crib a line from the film, “Peterloo” is all about people meeting, talking, and learning to grow strong together. Their only solution is collective action, which only comes through oratory and organization. And so speech begets speech, debate leads to more debate, and Leigh lets the viewer decide whether they wish to take minutes or not.
The vast amount of characters and the particulars of each issue can often overwhelm, but the broad scope is clear enough. Staged with the unhurried lilt of a 1970’s BBC tele-drama, “Peterloo” is manna from heaven for those fascinated by proto-leftist politics in the period post-French Revolution and pre-Marx, but makes one hell of a tough sit for those who are not.
Part of that stems from the nature of its narrative. The film never meanders; it uses each argument and exchange to build, piece by piece, toward the bloody conclusion promised by its title. That would be the 1819 massacre in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester. What began as peaceful public protest soon gave way to a government-led assault on its own citizens, leaving many dead and plenty more maimed. You can feel Leigh’s fury glowering off the screen through the entire last act, but that fury does the film and the filmmaker little service.
Leigh famously develops his films through intensive periods of improvisation. He starts with an actor or the simple idea for a scene and works outward, sometimes for over a year. The results can be extraordinary, creating films of uncommon emotional acuity and intimacy (it’s not for nothing that one of his best is called “Naked”) where each narrative development stems entirely from character.
“Peterloo” does exactly the opposite, setting a preordained conclusion and working like hell to get there. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but such a method does not really key into Leigh’s strengths as a dramatist. And indeed, apart from the shock of state-sanctioned violence, the film really does feel dramatically inert. Leigh no doubt cares deeply about his many characters, but by using them in such a polemic and closed-off way, he can hardly breathe them to life. History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as bland docudrama.
“Peterloo” had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Amazon Studios will open the film in theaters November 9.