British filmmaker Mike Leigh is famous for building his scripts out of months of elaborate improvisations with his actors, a process that yields an unusual sense of realism. Emotional catharses tend to spring from nowhere in Leigh's films, as they do in real life, though he also has a gift for caricature that's less often acknowledged. His films are not exactly realistic then, as they're also stylized and owe a great debt to melodrama, particularly the work of Charles Dickens. Films like "Meantime," "Life is Sweet," "Naked" and "All or Nothing" are exquisite examinations of the lower-class populations that were ignored and marginalized by Margaret Thatcher.
In this context, Leigh's new film, "Peterloo," suggests an origin story for the Britain that the filmmaker has been exploring for decades. On Aug. 16, 1819, thousands of protesters gathered in the city of Manchester in support of electoral reform and the military attacked them, killing several people and injuring hundreds. The gathering was on a site known as St. Peter's Field, and journalists ironically combined the name of this disgraced setting with that of Britain's military victory of four years previously: Waterloo. In other words, the more things change the more they stay the same. Whether it's the early 1800s or the 1980s or today, a government ruled by the rich is suppressing the poor masses, likening equality to anarchy, or, in contemporary parlance, to "socialism."
Though best known for intimate and small-scale character dramas, Leigh has fashioned a few stirring historical epics, particularly his Gilbert and Sullivan film, "Topsy-Turvy," and his extraordinary J.M.W. Turner biography, "Mr. Turner." In these productions, Leigh informs massive canvases with his gift for portraiture, but something goes wrong in "Peterloo." The sort of farrago that only a major artist can make, "Peterloo" is Leigh's most tedious film since "Vera Drake."
As in "Vera Drake," Leigh makes a bold move in "Peterloo," doubling down on a conceit that nullifies his flair for intimate and surprising textures. Almost all of "Peterloo" is composed of speeches in which laborers, priests, lawyers, generals and members of the House of Lords make cases for and against social reformation. The poor want what they always want and what they're always denied: governmental representation, as well as policies that allow them to earn a living. And the rich want what they always want in turn: to deny the poor these things for the sake of greater power and profits, which they rationalize with pretenses of divine prophecy.
Leigh pointedly resists a cliche of biopics, which usually offer harlequin moments so that the history lessons may go down easier. By contrast, the characters in "Peterloo" have no personal lives, as they're always interchangeably engaged in furthering their cause. Speeches will go on for minutes at a time, and sometimes characters will repeat speeches we've just heard, also at length. Leigh stirs a cauldron of political cacophony in which intimacy and communion are squandered.
Leigh likens this climate of classist antipathy, which culminates in the Peterloo Massacre, to the 24/7 outrage cycle of the present day, which inspires violence so regularly that we hardly even pretend to notice anymore. A devoted liberal, Leigh flirts with a promising idea: That speeches — and, by extension, contemporary media — give oppressed audiences an illusion of rebellion that prevents the real McCoy from happening. Some of the reformers of "Peterloo" are also critiqued for failing to speak to the laborers in language that they understand, which should resonate with liberal politicians of the present day.
But "Peterloo" is more diverting to discuss than to sit through. While the speeches in the film are rich in rhetorical brilliance, with an awe-inspiring attention to period vernacular, their sheer length and number are exhausting, then numbing, then actively infuriating. And the characters are ciphers, especially the working-class people with whom Leigh sympathizes. At least the villains are colorfully reductive, which comes close to countering Leigh's intentions: We come to nearly identify with the villains over the dully anonymous masses who are being victimized. The film feels twice as long as its ungodly 154-minute running time.
As these characters pontificate on and on, repeating points that we've long ago either accepted or rejected, one yearns for actual cinema like someone in the desert might crave water. Leigh and his gifted cinematographer Dick Pope occasionally oblige, offering a stunning landscape that serves as a poignant counterpoint to the violence, or framing a domestic tableau with a breathtaking sense of light that suggests the presence of the divine among the humdrum. Such grace notes remind us of the talent behind the camera, which too often falls prey here to the hectoring of its own characters.