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Film Reviews Mike Leigh’s sometimes sleepy, sometimes fierce British history drama Peterloo refuses to keep calm and carry on

Filmmaker Mike Leigh channels modern political rage in reconstructing the massacre of pro-democracy protesters by British troops in 1819 Manchester.

Simon Mein/Amazon Studios / Courtesy of Mongrel Media

Peterloo

Written and directed by: Mike Leigh

Starring: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake and Pearce Quigley

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Classification: PG; 154 minutes

rating

Much of Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is designed to incite anger and frustration. In reconstructing the massacre of pro-democracy protesters by British troops in 1819 Manchester, Leigh is blatantly channelling modern political rage. Watching the elite mow down those fighting for their basic human rights should incite all variety of fervour, though, and the climactic moment of violence feels as visceral and effective as the director’s best, albeit traditionally smaller-scale, work such as Secrets & Lies and Naked.

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Yet, a good portion of Peterloo, the film, confounds as well. So much of the movie, which waddles around long enough to clock in at a flabby 154 minutes, is filled with dry political rhetoric and textbook definitions of basic democratic principles. It’s meant to be rousing and risible material, but there are only so many instances of “no, you are mistaken, sir” that can be deployed before the production feels less like a drama and more like a very long semester spent with the syllabus of a 19th-century British history course.

When the bloody finale does eventually arrive, however, you’ll be thankful that Leigh is at the helm. Once again, the director proves himself to be a master of basic human conflict, on whatever scale is necessary.

Peterloo opens May 17 in Toronto and May 31 in Montreal

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