Tim McInnery

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

Advertisements

Eddie the Eagle

6Zy8HlUrFFmJIlsVfv9YOx4PxYO

Eddie The Eagle

07/04/16

The British public loves an underdog and nowhere was this trait better exemplified than in the case of ‘Eddie the Eagle’ (real name Michael Edwards), who, at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, caught the attention of press and public alike by competing in the ski jump. He always knew he would finish last (though it should be said that at the time, he did set a new British record) but his hapless, charming manner somehow managed to make him an overnight star.

Dexter Fletcher’s watchable biopic fashions an entertaining (albeit, as has been suggested, somewhat inaccurate) account of the events leading up to his ‘triumph.’ It begins with Eddie’s childhood and his obsession with one day representing his country at the Olympics – in one sport or another – much to the chagrin of his plasterer father, Terry (Keith Allen), who urges him to get a sensible job. Soon enough, young Eddie has grown up to be Taron Egerton, gamely trying to disguise his good looks behind a series of gurning facial expressions. Eddie fails to make the Olympic skiing team, largely because of the sneering disapproval of team leader, Dustin Target (Tim McInnery), who clearly thinks that the sport should not be open to the working classes. But then Eddie discovers that the British don’t actually have a ski jumping team, and this seems to offer him a golden opportunity to compete without any, um, competition – so he hotfoots it to Gstaad. Here he comes to the attention of former champion ski jumper, Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), now a washed up alcoholic. Eddie begs Bronson to coach him and eventually he succumbs…

This is a charming if unchallenging film, that galumphs along at breakneck pace, rarely pausing to draw breath. Fletcher’s challenge here was to create suspense in a story that we all know the ending to and he largely succeeds, taking us to vertiginous heights and sending us straight down the slope. The story is essentially a bromance, the chemistry between Egerton and Jackman is a winner and there’s a last minute cameo by Christopher Walken, which is always a bonus.

The film doesn’t go beyond Calgary, which is probably just as well, as the reality is that Edwards is now working as a plasterer, the very trade that his father always urged him to pursue. Fame is fleeting of course, but this may be Eddie the Eagle’s second moment in the spotlight and it’s well worth the price of admission.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney