By Ray Bennett
TORONTO – British director Mike Leigh’s latest, ‘Peterloo’, is a handsome period piece about a terrible incident in British history following victory over Napoleon at Waterloo when working class protestors in a 19th century English town were cut down by armed soldiers with many killed and more wounded.
The film’s attention to historical detail is to be admired greatly but the storytelling is so laboured that it will serve better as a tool for history teachers than entertainment for movie audiences. Cinematographer Dick Pope’s images are like paintings with first-class production design, sets and costumes. The performers, including Rory Kinnear and Maxine Peake, deliver with relish Leigh’s dialogue, which is heavy with regional accents.
The divide between the haves and have-nots in British society, however, is made obvious from the start as parliament rewards the Duke of Wellington with £750,000 while in the slums of Manchester a woman spends all day, every day, making pies that she lugs on a tray to market for one penny a pie.
There’s a lot of speechifying on both sides.The poor are mostly honest, industrious and accepting of their fate. The dishonest ones, who steal a bite to eat or a coat against the cold, are dispatched to prison, Australia or the gallows. The wealthy are all Southern nobs and the local big-wigs, keen to keep their nests feathered, smirk and sneer and impose the law with an iron rod. As organisers work towards a peaceful demonstration in support of democracy, the outcome appears inevitable and the film remains pedestrian.
‘Peterloo’ screened at the Venice International Film Festival and it will be shown at the London Film Festival on Oct. 17. It is due for release in the U.K. on Nov. 2.