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Saturday 15 December 2018

Leigh's impassioned call to arms across the class divide

Film review: Peterloo (12A): 7/10

Rory Kinnear as Henry Hunt in Peterloo.
Rory Kinnear as Henry Hunt in Peterloo.

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.

Drogheda Independent

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