Sometimes a movie comes along and profoundly affects me. I’m affected by its themes and radicalized by its message. I’m the type of moviegoer who is susceptible to rousing stories. After a stirring film I feel like grabbing people by the collar and shaking them until they understand the movie’s worth.
Sometimes a movie comes along that I can’t connect with, even if its plot and themes fall into my wheelhouse. I see the merit of its message, the sincerity of its themes, and the craftsmanship of the production design, but it doesn’t evoke any feelings from me. Peterloo is such a picture. Writer-director Mike Leigh’s story of the Peterloo massacre is clearly a work of great passion, but it’s as though Leigh’s broadcasting on a signal I can’t quite pick up.
The film tells the real-life story of the infamous Peterloo massacre. In 1819, British forces interrupted a peaceful pro-democracy rally in Manchester England where a crowd of 80,000 citizens gathered to show support for democratic reform. Wanting to stop the suffrage protestors in their tracks, a government-backed Calvary stormed the protest and massacred unarmed civilians.
You can see how much this story means to Leigh, as he spends two-hours of screen time leading up to the massacre. He devotes so much time to so many characters that I lost track of who was who. I haven’t been this disinterested in a cast of characters since watching Dunkirk.
The film tracks like a series of vignettes. Much time is spent in candlelit rooms where people take turns standing up and rattling off long-winded monologues. Peterloo presents a glimpse of Manchester in 1819 through many different perspectives; a traumatized soldier, a working-class family, industrialists, politicians, a renowned public speaker, and even the crown. And I’m leaving plenty out.
Nobody in this film feels like a real human being, but the bad guys are the worst offenders, by far. Leigh’s villains are so vile and over-the-top that they’re practically cartoon characters. The performances have a Shakespeare in the park vibe to them.
Evil men are so damn evil in this movie. They primp for the camera as they sneer and hold their noses high in the air. They’re so cartoony that it deflates their menace. They’re akin to Charlie Chaplin playing Hitler. Evil men exist in the world, and the scariest thing about them is that they look and behave like the rest of us. The monster in our midst is a more terrifying prospect than the one we see coming from a mile away. Leigh’s villains all but wear clown noses.
Peterloo does an excellent job of creating a sense of place. Production designer Suzie Davies and costume designer Jacqueline Durran go to great lengths to create a fully realized world. Watching Peterloo feels like looking straight into a window to the past. Their meticulous attention to detail pays off; every tattered shirt, stained overcoat, and muddy boot contributes to the film’s sense of authenticity. And the impoverished citizens’ dull garments create a powerful visual contrast with the imposing British soldiers’ bright and colourful uniforms. Cinematographer Dick Pope captures the action with slow and steady shots that give viewers enough time to soak up every detail in the frame.
Bloat is Peterloo’s main problem. It has no business clocking in at 154-minutes. Leigh’s harsh and brutal world barely held my attention. It would be a different story if Peterloo’s dull characters or meandering plot kept me engaged. The issue is that the people in this movie don’t feel like human beings; they’re walking talking Wikipedia entries.
Playing now at TIFF Bell Lightbox.