Mike Leigh

Peterloo

04/11/18

As somebody who lived and worked in Manchester for many years, the title of this film strikes a resonant chord with me. It refers to a particularly horrible massacre which occurred in the summer of 1819, when a huge crowd of peaceful pro-democracy campaigners marched to St Peter’s Field to hear a speech by acclaimed orator Henry Hunt, and were promptly set upon by the local yeomanry and a detachment of Hussars with sabres drawn. In the ensuing melee, 15 people were killed and more than 500 were seriously injured. The event was subsequently airbrushed from the pages of history and rarely spoken of. It’s not taught (much) in schools and many people – even those who live in the city where it occurred – have never heard of it.

One man who clearly thinks of this as a major injustice is Mike Leigh. Peterloo is his attempt to rectify the situation and it represents his most ambitious undertaking to date, portraying the slow build-up to the event and the massacre itself, whilst still employing his unique (at least in film) improvisational technique, where the actors inhabit their characters and devise their own dialogue. I’m sorry to say that I don’t think it works too well when applied to something of such immense scale. Sure, Leigh has visited the pages of history before, both in Topsy Turvey and in Mr Turner but, in both cases, he was working on a smaller canvas. Don’t get me wrong, I’m generally a huge fan of Leigh’s films, but what works brilliantly when applied to more intimate events founders somewhat here. Mind you, to be fair, the film does start well.

We meet Joseph (David Moorst), a young bugler at the Battle of Waterloo, clearly deeply and permanently traumatised by his experiences. The war over, he heads home on foot, to find his family struggling to survive in a country assailed by the corn laws, which prohibit the import of cheap grain. Family matriarch, Nellie (Maxine Peake), and her husband, weaver Joshua (Pierce Quigley), can barely afford to eat, so it’s hardly surprising when they find themselves increasingly drawn into the pro-democracy movement and looking forward to the great day at St Peter’s Field, when thousands of people in similar situations will come together to challenge the powers-that-be. The settings are convincingly done. Here is real squalor, real hardship, a million miles away from the chocolate box imagery so beloved of many period dramas – and early scenes of luckless individuals in court being sentenced to heinous punishments are powerful stuff.

But there are a lot of characters to take in – so many that, inevitably, acclaimed actors are demoted to tiny, walk-on roles. And there are speeches – a lot of speeches – so many that the film’s two hour running time starts to drag, especially in the long sequence depicting the mass gathering at St Peter’s Field. Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), heralded as a hero by the protesters, is depicted as a rather unpleasant, horribly self-serving prig who clearly thinks himself a cut above the working-class people whose plight he is supposed to be representing. The people would clearly have been better served by speaking for themselves.

If there’s a problem, it’s that virtually every establishment character we encounter is a smirking, pompous and downright unpleasant individual verging on caricature. This reaches its apotheosis in Tim McInnery’s turn as the Prince Regent, a bloated, giggling buffoon, not so much out of touch with the electorate as living on another planet. Of course the ruling classes’ behaviour was abominable, but this seems crude and over-simplistic.

And then of course, there’s the massacre itself, a lengthy sequence that really ought to bring us to tears of outrage – but the film’s 12A rating obliges Leigh to hold back from making it too visceral and the result, with sabres clearly hitting little more than fresh air just feels clumsy and unfocused. If ever a sequence cried out to be properly storyboarded, this is it.

This isn’t a total dud. Indeed, there’s plenty here that does work but, I think, too much that really doesn’t. I feel bad for not having enjoyed it more. I really wanted to like it, but ultimately, it feels like a missed opportunity. This is such an important subject, one that symbolises a turning point in British history and the democratic movement. I can’t help feeling that it deserves a better film than this.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Party

26/10/17

Shot in stark (and very unforgiving) black and white and confined pretty much to one set, The Party feels like the kind of thing that Mike Leigh has done so brilliantly in the past – indeed, if it resembles one of his works in particular, it certainly has echoes of Abigail’s Party about it. With a sprightly running time of one hour and eleven minutes, this film, written and directed by Sally Potter, canters amiably along but, though it can’t be accused of overstaying its welcome, it never entirely manages to blow you away.

Janet (Kristen Scott Thomas) is in the mood to celebrate. She’s just been appointed shadow health minister for the ‘opposition’ and has invited some close friends around for vol au vents and bubbly. They are: her snarky best friend, April (Patricia Clarkson), and her partner, the hippy-dippy faith healer, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz); feminist university lecturer, Martha (Cherry Jones) ,and her wife, Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who is currently expecting the patter of er… little triplets; and, definitely the odd one out at this gathering, handsome young property developer, Tom (Cillian Murphy), who explains that his wife, Marianne, will be ‘along later for dessert… or maybe just coffee.’ But it’s not destined to be a happy occasion, because Janet’s morose husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), has something he really needs to get off his chest…

Relentlessly middle class in its themes, the story is mostly about people being unfaithful to one another and, though the performances are generally pretty good, the protagonists cannot seem to help slipping into caricature. April can’t open her mouth without insulting somebody, Martha and Jinny say things in public that any rational person would surely save for later on, and Gottfried is so glib it hurts – but then maybe that’s entirely the point of him. Only Tom seems to have convincing reasons to act the way he does and, indeed, Murphy’s performance is the strongest one here – a man driven by jealousy to do something unspeakable.

Mind you, there’s a conclusion that I really don’t see coming and, all in all, this film makes a decent antidote to the steady diet of superhero movies we’re constantly being offered. I can’t help feeling though, that given the same set up and the same cast of characters, Leigh would have knocked this out of the park.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Mr Turner

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7/11/14

Mr Turner is that rarest of things, a resounding art house success. Judging by the ‘bums on seats ratio’ at my local Cineworld, Mike Leigh has succeeded beyond all reasonable expectation with this biopic of the great artist, Joseph Mallard Turner. It’s a difficult movie, one that obeys few of the rules you’d expect to find in a recent cinematic success – there are no car chases, superheroes or heads exploding in slow motion. But it’s also a richly rewarding experience and one that takes its own sweet time to convey its central message – that great artists exist outside of everyday conventions. For the first time since Topsy Turvy (his impressive biopic of Gilbert and Sullivan), Leigh has eschewed the contemporary ‘talking heads’ routine that is his trademark, to give us a historical piece where he’s employed the canny use of CGI to convey the intrinsic moods of some of the artist’s best-known work.

In the title role, Timothy Spall is simply quite extraordinary. He gives us a grunting, gurning turnip of a hero, a (probably autistic) painter who is hopeless at small talk and who treats the other people who drift into his world as little more than contemptible. We witness his deplorable relationship with Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), the niece of the woman who bore him two (unacknowledged) children but, nevertheless, a subject of brutal sexuality. We see his idolisation of his father, William (Paul Jesson) and his secretive relationship with Margate landlady Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey), where he finally found true happiness.

The film observes few of the accepted tropes of cinema. There’s no real story arc here, just a series of vignettes, illustrating Turner’s world, his relationships with those around him and his often stormy association with the Royal Academy. But throughout, there is stunning cinematography (by Dick Pope) that eerily recreates some of the man’s finest paintings; there’s dry humour -particularly in  the scenes with Ruskin (John McGuire), which serve to accentuate Turner’s lifelong hatred of critics, and there’s the stunning scene where Turner turns down the offer of £100,000 for his complete works from a rich benefactor, insisting that he wants to bequeath his paintings to ‘the nation.’

Mike Leigh is, quite simply, an anomaly. In an age where cinema is increasingly ruled by those who seek to champion the everyday, he is, quite simply, a national treasure, a man who ploughs his own furrow and does so on his own terms. Mr Turner will either leave you cold or cut you to the marrow. I’m happy to say that I belong to the latter category.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney