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With: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, David Moorst, Marion Bailey, David Bamber, Neil Bell, Simona Bitmate, Harry Peter Bradley, James Dangerfield, Eileen Davies, Liam Gerrard, Bronwyn James, Patrick Kennedy, Ian Mercer, Nico Mirallegro, Tim McInnerny, Dorothy Duffy, Philip Jackson, John Paul Hurley, Karl Johnson, Alastair Mackenzie, Martin Savage, Graham Seed, Robert Wilfort
Written by: Mike Leigh
Directed by: Mike Leigh
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for a sequence of violence and chaos
Running Time: 154
Date: 04/05/2019

Peterloo (2019)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Insurrection Collection

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Mike Leigh is a master of character-based dramas, but this lengthy period costume epic doesn't really bother with characters; it focuses instead on arguments and speeches... lots of speeches.

In Peterloo, the Napoleonic Wars are over, and traumatized bugler Joseph (David Moorst) makes his way home to his family in Manchester, England. There, times are hard, jobs are hard to come by, and without any representation in Parliament, everyone struggles. Joseph and his family begin attending meetings in which these things are addressed, beginning with the idea of a petition.

However, a group of magistrates in London learn of the potential insurrection and begin to send spies to keep tabs on things. The laborers organize a huge rally and enlist the famous orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) to speak. Hunt demands that all weapons be kept away, for fear of inciting violence. But on the day, August 16, 1819, government militia charge upon the crowd.

Peterloo is intelligently written and the dialogue sounds fine, and history buffs that already know this story may be enthralled by the down-to-brass-tacks approach. However, it isn't a dynamic movie, and it feels dry and static. It doesn't move or engage the way something like Steven Spielberg's Lincoln does. Part of the problem is an enormous tapestry of faces that pass before the camera, with very little idea of who anyone is, or who is going to stick around.

Some characters that seem like they're going to be important simply disappear, and others are introduced so quickly that it takes a while to realize who they are. Meanwhile, the government men and royalty are portrayed as absolute monsters. (An awkward maid named Bessie is the only real standout, getting a few small laughs in her couple of scenes.) Another problem is that, while the dialogue feels historically accurate, and appropriately, righteously angry, it's mostly just shouting and debating.

Rarely, if ever, does a character say something about who they actually are, which is — strikingly — the polar opposite of how other Leigh movies (Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year, Mr. Turner) operate. As one character complains in one scene, it's all "talk, talk, talk," and no action.

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