Peterloo (2018)

Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s 2018 film The Nightingale is released in UK cinemas today, by all accounts a brutal drama about a woman seeking revenge. Last year also saw the release of Mike Leigh’s grand reenactment of historical events that are now 200 years old, a brutal massacre by the government of poor and disenfranchised people demanding Parliamentary reform, a massacre which led eventually to changes in the electoral system. I didn’t love the film, but there’s plenty to commend it all the same.

Oh, there are bits in this long evocation of working-class northern England (well, Manchester, specifically) that I really liked, but I’m already struggling to remember what those were in the overwhelming sense that this is a piece of teachable didactic history intended to be introduced in classrooms with study packs and discussion points… [adopting teacher voice] “So you heard the aristocrats voicing their anxiety about the French Revolution while idly quaffing wine; do you understand how that could have been an underlying reason for why they felt compelled to send in the cavalry so quickly?” etc etc. The problem is, I never really felt any of that: the characters were types, represented ideas and classes, embodied such roles as ‘mill workers’, ‘land-owning reformers’, ‘aristocrats’, ‘the King, who is obviously a massive wanker’ et al. When they discussed ideas, I never got a sense of what these might mean for any actual people, and so the whole just came across as a pageant (or even as propaganda), such that the final battle never really had much emotional pull for me — other than the obvious ‘this is bad: never trust the government’. There’s also a constant sense of cheeky jollity on the sidelines, sparkling little bits of wordplay or hamminess, that made me feel like I was supposed to laugh at everyone. The performances are fine, as far as they are written at all (Maxine Peake is never bad), but too much of it is fairly one-note, so it’s only in small details that the film comes alive — fiddlers practising in the fields on the outskirts of town, a cat leaping around behind a mill owner fulminating at his workers taking time off, that kind of thing. It’s well-mounted, it will hopefully spur discussion and understanding, but it never really felt alive to me as a film.

Peterloo film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Mike Leigh; Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley; Length 154 minutes.
Seen at Vue Islington, London, Saturday 17 November 2018.

Man Up (2015)

In some ways this is a very familiar film, and yet even Richard Curtis can’t always seem to get it right, so it’s nice to see an example which works — a film both consistently funny, and not patronisingly dishonest about its characters or the contours of their romance (at least, for the most part). This, however, is not an assessment I had taken from the trailer, in which Simon Pegg’s Jack just seems like a massive dick to his mistaken-blind date and putative love interest Nancy (played by American comic actor Lake Bell). What you discover on actually watching the film is that, yes, he does act that way, but it’s contextualised within a sort of mid-life crisis he’s going through. The film (and Nancy) crucially doesn’t let him get away with his childish acting out, and his character ends up expressing some self-awareness and regret about his shallowness — too often, romcoms seem to excuse these kinds of blatant character defects as charming quirks, to be accepted in time and through love. I mean, you still have to accept that this is a film that follows a well-worn mould of heteronormativity, about people who are relationship-obsessed, but within that context it’s all very charming. Lake Bell convinces with her accent and is a likeable lead, and even the harsher edges of Rory Kinnear’s deranged stalker character are almost neutered through the sheer force of the film’s comedy. It’s all put together with straightforward craft, even if some of the transitions ring my London geography alarm bells (the exit to the Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes is in… Soho?), but it’s the writing and performances that carry it. Though there’s always one thing I never understand about this genre of films, which is how the protagonists’ friends are always such ridiculous twits; I remain glad that I’ve never been to any parties like the one which opens the film.

Man Up film poster CREDITS
Director Ben Palmer; Writer Tess Morris; Cinematographer Andrew Dunn; Starring Lake Bell, Simon Pegg, Rory Kinnear; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 10 June 2015.