If The Birth of a Nation was a false and racist ‘history written with lightning’, then Peterloo is a meticulously researched and crafted history written with slowly drying paint. An informative but terminally dull trudge through the lives of the Manchester and Lancashire reformists in the months leading up to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, Mike Leigh’s latest film is an obvious passion project that forgets to also be a film for other people. Leigh is more concerned with a history lesson than any sort of entertainment or real emotional engagement, and the result is the most expensive school infotainment video ever made.
Taking a documentary-style approach, Peterloo has a very wide focus, encompassing a litany of different stories, each with their own cast of characters. The marquee names are Maxine Peake as impoverished, matriarchal working mum Nellie and Rory Kinnear as famous orator Henry Hunt, but they hardly get any more screen time than the army of character actors who occupy the rest of the roles. It’s an impressively broad scope, certainly Leigh’s most ambitious film yet in terms of sheer scale, and does create the impression of a lived-in, evolving England, but one that also stops you from getting particularly attached to any one character.
Peterloo itself only takes up 15 minutes of Peterloo’s over 150 minute run time, and by the time you reach the main event, your patience will have been well and truly spent. Town hall conferences go on forever, every speaker ending their piece by announcing the next orator until you’re sure that Leigh is simply having you on, waiting to see how much period-accurate rhetoric you’re willing to tolerate. There’s an embarrassing number of completely superfluous scenes, either laden with clunky historical exposition or reiterating points already made in ever less subtle ways – this is a film that needed a far harsher edit and could do with being 30 or even 45 minutes shorter.
The eponymous massacre, when it does finally arrive, is also a let down, the scale of the event not effectively rendered and the camera too dispassionate for the violence to hit home. It can never quite find the right place to be amongst the carnage, and whilst avoiding ghoulish grisliness is an admirable aim, it mainly ends up looking like clumsy choreography. It’s a shame, because Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope do conjure some fantastic visuals elsewhere, especially a hugely powerful shot of an empty and silent woollen mill.
It brings me no joy to report that Leigh has delivered 2018’s most disappointing film, but when something with so much potential is so disinterested in being interesting, it’s hard to not be annoyed by it. There’s an anger here – especially in the story of young Waterloo veteran Joseph (David Moorst) going hungry, often intercut with the lavish spending of parliament on the already wealthy – that could have made for a far better film if it was deployed more liberally. Instead, we have a dry lecture that, with depressing inevitability, sidelines women by giving most of them, Peake excluded, woefully misjudged roles. It’s not all bad though; with its ridiculous length, some overworked A-Level history teachers now have a few lesson plans written for them.