Like all of us, Mike Leigh’s sprawling, lumbering examination of the Peterloo Massacre has its strengths and its weaknesses. Any enthusiast for the director, beamed forward from the 1970s or 1980s, would, however, be most surprised to discover which aspects stand out and which feel underpowered. Profiting from Dick Pope’s gorgeous, clean photography – busy, bright exteriors balanced by oily candle-lit interiors – the picture succeeds at the level of an old-school epic. It begins with the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo (which lent part of its name to the 1819 disaster) and leads – and leads and leads – onwards to the murderous assault on peaceful protestors in Manchester’s St Peter’s Field.
It is lovely to look at. It has real sweep. The problem lies with the sometimes clunky dialogue and the occasionally rushed characterisation. That’s what Leigh is supposed to do best. Who thought we’d end up praising the facets of a Leigh film that feel most like the work of David Lean? The world is upside down.
That prologue introduces us to Joseph (David Moorst), a shell-shocked trooper, who, after the smoke has cleared, makes his miserable way home to a close family in Liverpool. Here's where the difficulties set in. The conversations around the dinner table concerning the Corn Laws feel a little too much like footnotes to a secondary-school text. A later discussion concerning the suspension of habeas corpus has the advantage of more plausible context – the editorial staff of the Manchester Observer debate – but it still feels uncomfortably shoehorned in.
The picture also suffers from some broadly drawn distinctions between the gallant powerless and the dastardly elite. Casting Tim McInnerny as the fat, useless Prince Regent only serves to emphasise the tonal similarities between his scenes and comic idiocy in Blackadder II.
For all that and for all its sluggish pace, Peterloo still manages to inform and enrage. Arriving at a time of notable tension between the UK government and its people, the improvised script throbs with a passion for democracy. Much of the action concerns attempts to accommodate the radical speaker Henry Hunt (a fine Rory Kinnear), but, when he mounts the stage, the film largely ignores his speech to focus on the endangered citizens reeling back from the advancing hussars.
That is as it should be. As ever, Leigh is on the side of the odd, the eccentric and the sat-upon.
A qualified success.
Peterloo opens on November 2nd