When talking about films, I tend to like talking about ones that I’ve enjoyed or which have made a lasting impression.
This film made a lasting impression, but for all the wrong reasons.
Peterloo tells the story of a raging injustice visited on the poor and downtrodden of Machester in 1819.
Director Mike Leigh is well-known for his social dramas and, although I don’t necessarily share his worldview, I had hoped this film would shed some light on something only vaguely alluded to in history books when I was at school.
It had Amazon’s money behind it, so what could go wrong?
It all starts promisingly enough with scenes of a traumatised young bugler, fresh from the battlefields of the Napoleonic War, staggering home to Manchester. There, he collapses in his mother’s arms as the family gathers around to welcome him back.
And from there on, it’s downhill. Distressed at the state of their returning son/brother, members of the family start reciting swathes of historical exposition.
Here’s an extract and, no, I didn’t make this up:
Besides, most of t’government are landowners themselves! Getting fat on land that they stole from us in t’first place.
What’s that to do with t’price of bread?
They have a bad harvest, there’s a shortage of corn. They won’t let them import any from France or America or anywhere, so they force prices up and us poor souls end up paying five times more for a loaf of bread.
Is that t’Corn Laws?
They were meant to help us but it just made things worse.
Real actors got up on a real soundstage in front of real cameras and recited page after page of this contrived drivel. How much were they paying them?!
Fifteen minutes in, I found myself wondering if we’d crossed over into the world of Monty Python. Come to that, Mike Leigh himself might as well have shuffled into the scene to explain the plot.
Right, so: bread costs too much, the rich are getting richer while the poor starve.
OK… to spare you from wasting two-and-a-half hours of your life, here’s the rest:
The government is unhappy with the growing dissent in the North and appoints someone to go up there and bring the people to heel. Reformist ringleaders then organise a peaceful protest in St. Peter’s Field in Manchester. The local magistrates/gentry get wind of it, show up to watch the protest from a window and then overreact by sending the militia in, sabres drawn.
Many protesters are wounded and eighteen die.
I mentioned the run time. Expecting a 90-minute show, I was horrified when, 45 minutes in, I paused to get a cup of tea and realised I was still barely 1/3 of the way through. But by now, I was locked in. I had to see it through to the end, if nothing else just to see if the massacre was worth the turgid preamble.
This is where I betray my age. I still haven’t quite got the hang of fast-forwarding to the end when I’m bored-but-reluctant-to-completely-give-up-on a film.
Thus, an evening’s viewing turned into an endurance test. Peterloo might be horseshit, but I was damned if I was going to let it crap on me.
Then it got worse. Cue a trio of unintentionally funny performances which undermine the already creaking “story” yet further.
Rory Kinnear’s OK as Tanner in the recent James Bond films, but for some reason whenever he’s dropped into a period piece he just sticks out like an over-earnest sore thumb.
Kinnear’s character, Henry Hunt, is drawn a bit like a Nineteenth-Century social media influencer; very aware of his own standing and reluctant to be drawn into anything that might undermine his fanbase.
None of this is helped by Kinnear’s cod-West Country accent. As his Mancunian host shows him to his room, he burrs from off-camera “Mrs Johnson, if you could bring me a light repast”. I nearly spat my tea out.
Hunt is what would nowadays be called a “keynote speaker” at the protest.
More of that in a moment.
OK, distracting character no. 2. The Prince Regent, played by Captain Darling himself, Tim McInnerny.
I just sat agog murmuring, “what the hell were they thinking?” as poor Tim struggled his way through his script, his mouth stuffed with cotton wool.
The makeup bod should have been fired on the spot.
As if prosthetic jowls weren’t enough we have an actor, whose very name yells Blackadder, trying to pass himself off as the Prince Regent (ermm… Blackadder again).
So what have we got so far?
Well, there’s 30-40 minutes of meetings in taverns, lots of eloquent exposition by downtrodden millworkers and whisker-twirling skullduggery by rich men in top hats. Our poor war veteran/bugler who opened the film has vanished (spoiler: he turns up at the end, just in time to get shot and killed. Ohhh, the irony!)
We’ve had the Prince Regent, chewing the scenery and showing us Just How Out Of Touch He Really Is. And we’ve had Mr Kinnear-Hunt, frock-coating his way from scene to scene, reluctantly agreeing to address the crowd and demanding light repasts.
But there’s another bombshell. A bad one.
There didn’t seem to be a photo of Mercer “in character” as Dr Healey, but nobody in the cast better illustrates Peterloo’s total lack of directorial control.
Mercer should have stayed in Coronation Street, because his acting is dire. Healey’s character spends all his time calling out supportive words at meetings, each line bookended by Mercer lolling his tongue around, this-side-to-that. The damned thing appears to have a life of its own.
No scene featuring Mercer escapes The Tongue. During yet another Important Meeting, everyone laughs at something and Mercer actually cranks his head around to leer knowingly RIGHT AT THE CAMERA!
The end result is a bloated, self-important film, full of lumpen exposition, unintentionally funny acting, one-dimensional characters, a preachy tone, teeth-grindingly awful dialogue, poor CGI (the gathering scene before the massacre) and… the cherry on top… Ian Mercer.
I give up. I just give up.
I’m sorry, but Peterloo was just so bad and so disappointing, I had to say something.
Avoid at all costs.