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Review: Peterloo (Mike Leigh)

This particular British bastion of working-class representation in cinema needn't have bothered make it so clear, but then again why not? And so Mike Leigh barrels on in, full throttle, fired up, the grit of his gritty social realism hardened and engorged into flaming hot boulders of political furore with Peterloo. It might be considered an ambitious folly, an expensive (for Mike Leigh) misfire, but only within the context of his canon - by any other means, this is bold, incisive, frequently astonishing filmmaking, a work on an epic canvas that makes full, unsparing use of the breadth of that canvas. It pauses but never tires, forms itself gradually without ever settling, explores a great panorama of stories yet maintains its capacity to surprise and unsettle right up to the end. Leigh displays a clear-headed vigour throughout, coalescing the movie's various threads not merely by their narrative connective tissue nor by his signature mise-en-scene but also by emphasizing each individual moment's significance in assembling this grand tapestry of a seminal, though little-known, event in British history.

That clear-headedness manifests as brute unambiguity too - alas, Peterloo may be an impressive feat of artistry as a whole, but its constituent parts are often hokey, perfunctory foundation blocks over which no amount of sincerity can paper properly. Leigh infuses a political story with a political slant, for which no reasonable person could fault him, but it's the manner of the delivery of that slant that grates, not its content. One appreciates Leigh's skill as an artist throughout, even if his reach occasionally extends further than his grasp, but it's genuinely alarming how tone-deaf he is at times - several scenes lack the sense of verisimilitude in the dialogue for which Leigh is famous, with one scene concerning corn laws coming across as though the actors had checked through the Wikipedia entry five minutes before rolling (this is, hands down, the worst single moment of Leigh's career to date).

Yet Mike Leigh on autopilot is no less than a master of this medium, and Peterloo exemplifies nothing of the sort. This is a master stretching himself, devoting his skills to something greater in both consequence and scope than anything he's produced before. One might intermittently wish he hadn't - too little of this movie bears the same emotive power of his smaller, subtler works - or posit that he's a lucky git to get the chance to stretch on something of this scale, but the sheer engagement Leigh here displays is commendable purely in principle, never mind in practice. And that practice is generally most impressive, crafting a movie that meanders yet never strays, strains yet never buckles, and burgeons with brilliant performances, exquisite design, and the disarming force of what can occur when all of a movie's elements are focused on achieving the same, soaring goal. Maybe Peterloo is that ambitious folly, but its ambition is utterly laudable, and its folly almost negligible as a result.

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