Mike Leigh’s unflinching examination of the Peterloo massacre is big on historical detail but woefully short of engaging characters
Peterloo (15) **
Nae Pasaran (12A) ****
Mirai (PG) ****
Full of noble intent and unflinching horror, Mike Leigh’s new film Peterloo dramatises the titular 1819 massacre at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, with a forensic attention to historical detail and a frustratingly simplistic approach to characterisation. The result is a rather stultifying historical epic, a textbook example of preaching to the converted (with the emphasis on textbook). Beginning in the aftermath of Waterloo with a traumatised member of Wellington’s army stumbling around in a stupor, the film follows this soldier’s return to Manchester where his shattered psyche is reflected in the shattered lives of his mother (Maxine Peake) and the rest of his family, who have been plunged into poverty and hunger by austerity measures imposed on working class communities across the north of England by an unrepresentative political system.
With the ruling classes’ fear of insurrection hardened by the French and American revolutions, there’s little chance of their grievances being met with a sympathetic ear and reasoned debate, especially as parliamentarians, military commanders and the decadent and useless Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny, in a small but lively cameo) view the north with a contempt that borders on pathological. The passion of the growing parliamentary reform movement is yet more evidence that the working poor won’t be pacified with a token wage rise to help fill their empty bellies, so when a mass rally to petition the government for change to the electoral system is organised in Manchester, underhand steps are taken to quell it with a force that will dissuade future protest.
The film jumps between the “multitudes” and the monsters here, with Leigh filling the film with interminable-seeming speeches that provide plenty of context but deaden the drama. With no main character to latch onto, the film presents a broad canvas in the broadest fashion possible, which succeeds only in reducing all the workers to salt-of-the-earth saints and the ruling classes to cackling sociopaths. Of course it’s entirely possible he’s intentionally setting out to create a kind of theatre of the grotesque in cinematic form – perhaps as way of making the already obvious contemporary parallels more pronounced. But the fidelity to the historical record elsewhere in the film, combined with the almost verité, Paul Greengrass-esque way he shoots the carnage of the government-ordered massacre, suggests this is more down to Leigh’s occasional blind spot when it comes to depicting class in his movies. For every Secrets and Lies or Naked or Vera Drake, there’s a film like Career Girls or All or Nothing or Another Year where characters court caricature in ways that are detrimental to the overall film. In Peterloo there are scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in Monty Python or Blackadder, which is worrying given the subject matter. Yet the persistent lack of nuance makes it hard to avoid making such facetious-sounding comparisons.
It’s all the more frustrating because there are moments where the film grapples more successfully with the complexities of the period, particularly when it zeroes in on Henry Hunt, the gifted orator who spoke eloquently for the people despite not being of the people. Brilliantly played by Rory Kinnear, the film presents him as something of a sanctimonious political opportunist, literally riding into town with his white hat on to speak up for the common man despite being unable to interact with them on a one-to-one basis. Yet he’s also the most rounded and honestly drawn character in the film, so much so that he feels like an unintentionally revealing comment on Leigh’s suitability for the task at hand. When all Hunt’s fine words and carefully calibrated rhetoric are rendered meaningless by the crowd’s inability to hear him, it feels like an oddly self-aware summation of the film’s failings.
Political protest is more successfully explored in Nae Pasaran, Edinburgh-based Chilean filmmaker Felipe Bustos Sierra’s wonderfully humane documentary about the Rolls-Royce factory workers in East Kilbride who showed their solidarity with the people of Chile by refusing to fix the fighter jet engines used by Pinochet in the military coup of 1973. The film explores this modest act of rebellion in an admirably low-key way that emphasises the fundamental decency of the men who took a stand. Spending the first part setting the scene with a mix of archival news clips detailing the CIA-backed overthrow of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government, Sierra does a fine job of quickly establishing the Scottish side of this story. Reuniting key players Bob Fulton, Stuart Barrie, Robert Sommerville and John Keenan, the film shows how an act of oppression in a part of the world to which these men had no personal ties was still like “a red rag to a bull.” But what makes the film special is Sierra’s ability to trace the real-world effect these men had by picking up the story in Chile. Tracking down dissidents, academics and members of the military, the film shows how the actions taken in East Kilbride directly helped ground the Hawker Hunter planes at a time when bureaucratic red tape prevented international governments from helping the people of Chile in their time of need.
A four-year-old grappling with the arrival of a new baby sister is the starting point for Mirai, the latest family friendly wig-out from anime master Hosoda Mamoru (Wolf Children). The core story is relatively simple, but its child’s-eye depiction of a toddler’s existential angst is inventively rendered with surreal flights of fancy that fall somewhere between Where the Wild Things Are, Inside Out and A Christmas Carol. ■