Leigh’s im­pas­sioned call to arms across the class di­vide

The Argus - - ENTERTAINMENT -

PETERLOO (12A)

In an early scene of Mike Leigh’s his­tor­i­cal drama, an ex­hausted mother pre­sides over her brood in Manch­ester with stoic re­solve as the bit­ter cup of op­pres­sion over­flows in the cor­ri­dors of Westminster.

‘ Times is too hard to lose hope. Hope is all we’ve got,’ pro­fesses the ma­tri­arch as neigh­bours pre­pare to take to the streets for a pro-democ­racy rally in de­fi­ance of the rul­ing Tory gov­ern­ment.

Her sim­ple, heart­felt words re­ver­ber­ate through­out Peterloo, an im­pas­sioned call to arms across the class di­vide which builds with sick­en­ing in­evitabil­ity to the 1819 mas­sacre of pro­test­ers at St Peter’s Field in Manch­ester, which Leigh recre­ates with all of the sound and fury he can muster.

It’s a bravura se­quence, cap­tured in all of its hor­ri­fy­ing grandeur by cine­matog­ra­pher Dick Pope, who was de­servedly Os­car-nom­i­nated for his work on Mr Turner, Leigh’s pre­vi­ous foray into 19th-cen­tury machi­na­tions.

That film was blessed with a sen­sa­tional lead per­for­mance from Ti­mothy Spall as con­tro­ver­sial painter JMW Turner.

Peterloo has no ob­vi­ous emo­tional ful­crum, di­vid­ing at­ten­tion be­tween a vast en­sem­ble cast, some of whom are only af­forded one or two lines of di­a­logue.

The film is book-ended by bru­tal­ity, open­ing on the dis­ori­ent­ing im­age of a young soldier called Joseph (David Moorst) sound­ing his trumpet at the bat­tle of Water­loo as brave young men are cut down in their prime around him.

He is one of the lucky few to stag­ger from the blood-soaked bat­tle­field and David limps home to Manch­ester to the com­fort­ing em­brace of his mother, Nel­lie (Max­ine Peake).

The lad is deeply scarred by his ex­pe­ri­ences, ex­hibit­ing all the signs of post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der as loved ones cluck and fuss around him.

David’s fa­ther Joshua (Pearce Quigley) joins the throng of disgruntled voices, who are en­raged that Par­lia­ment un­der the con­trol of Prime Min­is­ter Lord Liver­pool (Robert Wil­fort) and home sec­re­tary Lord Sid­mouth (Karl John­son) has re­fused to ex­tend vot­ing rights to work­ers.

Thou­sands plan to march on Au­gust 16, 1819, to St Peter’s Field to lis­ten to famed or­a­tor Henry Hunt (Rory Kin­n­ear) plead their case.

‘We can­not al­low this Wilt­shire pea­cock to in­cite the spu­ri­ous Masses,’ sneer the men in power, who po­si­tion sword-wield­ing cav­alry close to the protest site in case fiery rhetoric in­spires a riot.

Peterloo is dis­ap­point­ingly light on tex­tured hu­man drama to com­ple­ment the po­lit­i­cal tub-thump­ing.

The spec­tac­u­larly or­ches­trated con­clu­sion should be emo­tion­ally shat­ter­ing but I was cu­ri­ously un­moved, un­able to find many faces in the crowd that I cared about as cav­alry charged.

Leigh’s picture doesn’t quan­tify the loss of life in ex­pos­i­tory di­a­logue or with a ti­tle card at the end of the film, which seems a cu­ri­ous artis­tic de­ci­sion for an epic, sprawl­ing me­mo­rial to sur­vivors and the fallen.

RAT­ING: 7/10

Rory Kin­n­ear as Henry Hunt in Peterloo.

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