Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB
United Kingdom, 2018. BFI Film Fund, Film4, Thin Man Films. Screenplay by Mike Leigh. Cinematography by Dick Pope. Produced by Georgina Lowe. Music by Gary Yershon. Production Design by Suzie Davies. Costume Design by Jacqueline Durran. Film Editing by Jon Gregory. Toronto International Film Festival 2018.
Mike Leigh began with grimy, brilliant explorations of the big moments in small, contemporary lives, and thanks to his great success in the theatre and on film it led to his raising budgets for period movies that retained his exceptional skill for rich characterizations while creating very vivid and convincing recreations of Victorian (Topsy Turvy) and post-war (Vera Drake) England. Without even bothering to pause for another tale of the modern world as he did between his other evocations of the past, he stays more or less in Mr. Turner’s era with his most ambitious film yet, a tale of the events leading up to a crime inflicted by England’s ruling class against its lower-class citizens and the event itself. The Battle of Waterloo has been fought and Napoleon has lost, and English soldiers have returned home, one of them a quiet, traumatized bugler (David Morst) whose sparse dialogue and soulful eyes announce him as obnoxious symbolism from the opening scene until the red-coat-in-the-sea-of-grey finale. He returns to Manchester and finds his family, among the many Mancunian (and Lancashire) clans who are beginning to chafe at the increasingly dire living circumstances caused by the first Corn Laws, which are driving inflation high (we know this because at one point a character says “because of the Corn Laws?”) and making survival for the working-class very difficult. The bugler’s mother (Maxine Peake) sees a lot of men talking and questions whether or not they can turn their big ideas into actions, but out beyond their home are groups of people gathering to do so, discussing politics in pubs and gathering enough force to make local authorities nervous and send for aide from the controlling south. The people advocating reform are seen as potential revolutionaries by their social betters, who still feel the spirit of the French Revolution in the recent past and are terrified of it happening in England, suspending the right of habeas corpus in the name of preserving the nation’s security, but the rowdy reformers are not deterred, sending men down south to recruit a speaker for an event they are planning to mark the beginning of change. Orator and political activist Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) is valued for the power of his words, the strength of his voice and for his own position as a wealthy landowner, and having already made his name at other events is brought to Manchester for a big event planned at St. Peter’s Fields. If you know your British history, however, you know that these scenes building towards this gathering are setting us up for a magnificent tragedy: the massacre at St. Peter’s Fields (nicknamed “Peterloo” because of the horror of an English public space looking like a battlefield) saw men on horseback slicing up defenseless women and children with sabers using mob violence as an excuse but actually out of fear of class uprising. Leigh’s abrupt ending following this horrifying climax ensures that we know that it did not lead to any changes to better the lives of the survivors, including confirmation from the palace that what was done was in the name avoiding something worse. Meticulous research and planning has clearly gone into this film, you never see a shot where you can’t tell that every teacup is there because it has been painstakingly arranged, you’re sure that the filmmakers made sure to get the grain of wood right on humble tables and recreate the right pallor of skin for people living in a smoggy city during the Industrial Revolution. Unfortunately, watching the movie has all the excitement of listening to someone read to you from an encyclopedia, Leigh has been this good at evoking the past many times, but he’s always accompanied it with a host of compelling and complex characters. There are none to be found here, few members of the cast read successfully on camera and Kinnear, in a central role, is the dullest of them all, close-ups of his face in his heated moments reveal nothing particularly interesting under the surface. The dialogue rarely feels like more than exposition, the working class are presented as symbols of martyrdom and the toffs are all selfish and evil. It makes perfect sense that in telling this story you want to emphasize the blindness of the privileged classes, but everyone needs to be a three-dimensional human being if you’re going to have an audience sit through a 155 minute History Channel presentation, and as a result a number of characters feel like cheap shots.