What does it mean for a film to have a clear purpose? By this, I mean to have a through-line, a point expressed not just in words but deed – to be more than a jumble of odds and ends. Unfortunately, Peterloo at least partially collapses into this contradiction. This is a large film, with larger ambition, and yet it can’t quite coalesce all that grandeur into a cohesive form. Director Mike Leigh attempts an epic of intimate proportions, marrying the domesticity so much a part of the lives of the film’s benighted underclasses with the size of their political ambition. Despite this, something doesn’t quite connect. The film that results is just short of all that scope, juxtaposing its parts – themselves occasionally excellent – in such a manner that none really stand out, as the whole collapses into the slightest sense of a slog.

The narrative is straightforward, the proceedings a gradual progression into the titular event. In the 1810s, in the wake of Britain’s triumph at the Battle of Waterloo, the long-beleagured workers and working class of Lancashire grow restless. Far from the Duke of Wellington’s hefty prize for advancing the miserable cause of empire, these people suffer under byzantine trade laws and cartels designed to keep their labour cheap. More to the point, these people do not have a voice with which to represent themselves. The film is laudable for its distinctly class-focused rereading of a country’s history so enmeshed in great, recorded, and almost-always monied individuals. It confidently sympathises with the small people of history; we are introduced to a lone soldier at Waterloo in a field of faintly inglorious confusion. Listless and traumatised, he limps home to find only the same conditions as ever. The people bleed, and yet see so little. The country doesn’t work for them.

“it lacks enough of an invested eye, happy to present  only the same parade of righteous men and women”

If that last part seems a little polemical on my part, it’s only by the film’s influence. This is a movie so wrapped up in speechifying, oration, and the crowd – and yet is intrigued by the prospect of breaking it apart ever so slightly, to look at the cogs and wheels and reality behind even the highest rhetoric. Stock and trade is here found in that endless dialogue between polemicism and practicality in politically-radical conduct. There’s something to be said for a piece committed to taking notions of layman-appeal and revolutionary complexity in balance – it’s a compelling enough idea. But it lacks enough of an invested eye, happy to present only the same parade of righteous men and women that get up, extol genuine righteousness, sit down. The predictability is exhausting. On the off-chance that the polemics it puts front and centre are interrogated, it can be to more worthwhile ends. The camera trains on a man’s exhaustion after his rousing of rhetorical hellfire, flowery sentiment is interrupted by a confused layman, and – in keeping with the times – the grandest of speeches is simply impossible to hear at the back. These are all gestures towards something with purpose – perhaps a withering look at histories of great men – and yet the meandering occurrences bog the pace down, something more interesting drowned in all the eventually-numbing appeals to class justice. One speech comes after another, after another. There’s so little room to breathe and it all comes off, unfortunately, as a bit dry.

Maxine Peake, one of the large ensemble cast

So much of the problem is structural. A few scenes of fusty debate and grim northern living would suffice; instead, the film spends too much time establishing character and place, with so little depth therein. It all begins to feel a bit pedagogic. The ruling classes are near-uniformly deluded and malevolent, while the complexity of the workers is never quite dug into enough – disagreements amount to little other than talk, as the thing marches towards its bloody conclusion. It’s somewhat difficult to recall certain individual moments, after the fact – not for any lacking individual quality, mind, but the sheer breadth and gravity of almost everything in this film. It just blurs. The pastoral elegance of exterior Lancashire provides only occasional and muted relief from otherwise drab bunches of factories, offices, and houses.

Drab, in this context, connotes more the form than the aesthetic. Certainly, it’s not ugly. Cinematographer Dick Pope, Leigh’s frequent collaborator, returns with a consistently thoughtful shot composition, saturating scenes with a still-realistic vibrancy. Colour ekes from every corner of the otherwise perennial English overcast, while so many scenes themselves form thoughtful, detail-rich tableaus of familial life, the community, and the workplace. Likewise, camerawork is deceptively passive, placing itself as almost an observer in the frequent crowd, while rarely framing the many impassioned mouthpieces without likewise taking the mood of their audience. Opening with a revolving shot that tracks round a character, there’s an occasional practical dynamism to counter this. It’s at a sometimes-ambitious remove from Leigh’s earlier works, which would often lean towards the solely domestic. Where Mr Turner (2014) focused on the inner-life of its protagonist, the cinematic sweep here interlinks a vast array of figures, predicated around the reality of their shared, class-delineated existence.

To that end, it would be hard to deny that the material occasionally provides something. The idiosyncrasy of the scope at least allows for some diversity in scenarios. Backroom discussions of political integrity and subversion can crackle with intrigue; a genuine and sincere chat about what life would be like for a child of 1900 finds tenderness in all the muck; and put-upon workers rising from their fetters is necessarily powerful in the moment. For all the sluggishness, there’s an earnest, lived-in quality to proceedings. Language is period-appropriate, leaving little room for the common period-piece trope of yanking some 21st century diatribe out of the emotional defamiliarisation of the past. Poldark‘s winsome, bucolic nostalgia here finds its angry older sibling. Again, it can’t help but feel like things could have undergone a reorder, a re-edit. The titular event, built up towards the conclusion, feels like Peterloo coming out into open air, a tense and chaotic plunge into the many sordid angles of the slaughter of peaceful protesters. The sequence is an energetic change of pace from the rest of the film – events spiral, the situation growing dire in a haze of jarring imagery, perspectives, and increasingly dishevelled cuts. It’s just a shame that the dusty repetition of the rest only drives these bright spots away into the rest of the solemn malaise.

Peterloo suffers for its methodical pace, and lack of clear direction”

I’m not quite sure where it all lost me. My notes (scribbled at first in the hastiest, most excited hand), proclaimed the values of the intimate epic and the sweeping social realist historical tragedy. The cast is more than capable of carrying the sheer talkiness of it all. Maxine Peake is typically fantastic, her gaze engraved with a subdued, too-weary worry, while Rory Kinnear delights as a pompous, aggrandizing, and perpetually-irritated social reformer. But the problem lies around there – too many parts to all come together. It dawned on me, all of a sudden, that this was it. Somewhere along a procession of backroom diatribes, I grew bored. The domestic drama of Peake’s family is ultimately relegated to the background, while the political threads spiral off in too many directions, shafting characters for great swathes of time. Perhaps that’s the point – the tracing of an idea, rather than a person – but it leads to something that, for all its subject matter, feels disinterested in the voices it wants to put front and centre. The dialogue, despite its accuracy, rarely shines; each scene is some bland clash of different brands of revolutionary fervour with so little actual outcome. The dynamics eventually just muddle along to the conclusion.

This is a two-and-a-half hour film. It didn’t need to be. Yes, there’s something to be said for stretching the medium out across a realistic pace, rather than kowtowing to the conventional demands of character and plot. But it all falls a bit too flat; unless a film understands itself, has some core ideation – something to tie it all together – it amounts to very little. Peterloo suffers for its slouching tempo, and lack of clear direction. That it will end in the eponymous bloodbath is clear, but it seems seriously unmotivated in getting to that point. Whenever some genuinely inspired, thoughtful bit of film-making popped up, I was reminded of why I was rooting for the thing to pull through into something excellent. The thought of painstaking, lived historical immersion intrigued me. But despite all the considered detail, the experience fails to resonate. The film is like so many town meetings and soapbox assemblies before it: despite the nominal importance, there’s so little to be learnt amidst the grandstanding. As your seat grows sore, you’ll just wonder when you can leave.

Screening courtesy of the Film Distributors’ Association.

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