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Peterloo (2019)

Mike Leigh is a famed writer/director who often writes from a working class perspective, so it’s no surprise he would go back to a notable 1819 British massacre where local ruling magistrates and abusive militia mowed down and killed a dozen citizens that had gathered in Manchester to rally for worker rights and voting representation. I was ignorant to the injustice in history but went in suspecting a horrible confrontation by the end. When the tragedy does strike, it’s searing and upsetting and moving. The problem is that it takes forever to get to the moment that we’ve been waiting for and that finally provides meaning for the movie. Peterloo is far too long at two and a half hours and it takes a solid two of those hours just to finally march our characters into the awaiting tragedy of its title. Leigh paints a realistic mosaic of the many working class and middle-class people of the time, families struggling for work, men processing PTSD from the recent Napoleonic wars, political leaders articulating the pathways for reform measures, and Leigh and his production team are very good at recreating the industrial Manchester reality with care and precision. Leigh’s ear for dialogue is almost documentarian. However, for those two hours, Peterloo amounts to a slice of life of relatively boring people living boring lives until the big incident that makes them notable, namely that they were abused and died horribly. It becomes a waiting game where you get anxious for the tragedy to arrive. Another choice that harms the film’s impact is how incredibly over-the-top the villains are written and performed; these are mustache-twirling caricatures of greedy, venal business men, factory owners, and power brokers and their performances are so slimy that they feel like they transported from the most black-and-white of fantasy tropes. It feels like these people would be relaxing by putting their feet up over a pile of child corpses. It gets to be downright campy how the villains are portrayed. Peterloo is ultimately an enraging movie that is far too boring for far too long to feel much more than a sense of relief when it’s over.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

I wanted to turn this movie off for the first 30 minutes or so and that’s because of Poppy (Sally Hawkins), the deranged optimist that the movie follows. Writer/director Mike Leigh’s latest semi-improvised tale following the English working class centers on a primary school teacher who makes the conscious choice to be happy in life, no matter what life throws her way. Her presence is somewhat exhausting, like a customer who doesn’t know when making jokes has gone from fun to downright annoying. But you know what? Poppy eventually won me over, and I’m all but positive it was the scenes of her and her raging, pessimistic, tightly wound driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) that did it. Before their first driving lesson, I felt like the movie was giving me a slice-of-life that I was hesitant about; Poppy, like anyone who is insanely happy, can be grating. The humor is extremely dry and most of the clever dialogue exchanges will likely go by unnoticed because the actors aren’t delivering big punch lines. Hawkins goes all-out as the unflappable Poppy and she will make you smile through sheer force of will. This was a film I liked more by the time it was winding down, perhaps because Poppy might be easier to take knowing that time is coming to a close much like spending time with a distant relative during the holidays.

Nate’s Grade: B

Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Mike Leigh’s latest might prove to be the old Brit’s most daring and ambitious spectacle of memory. It’s the tale of English musical maestros Gilbert and Sullivan chronicling their rocky yet firm relationship and the bustle of theater life. The period is set down exquisitely with massive amounts of elegant costumes and set designs, all of whom do well to distract you from the plot. Oh I forgot, there isn’t one. The drawback to Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy is that it is less a movie and more of a recreation of Gilbert and Sullivan musical numbers. Each musical piece lasts in its enduring entirety unyielding to be edited in the least. Thus in between each interlude is a snippet of theater life and the insanity displayed much more fluently by 1998’s Shakespeare in Love. Topsy-Turvy degenerates into a Fantasia style movie — a musical number here, a snippet in between, then another musical number, and repeat for two hours and forty minutes. To theater lovers, and especially Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiasts, Mike Leigh’s celluloid account should prove a triumph and brilliant in its startling recreation of 1880s English life. But to any other audience members out there, boredom will set in quickly enough and you’ll be asking yourself when you leave if you bought a movie ticket or a theater ticket.

Nate’s Grade: C

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