Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Mike Leigh
Stars: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, David Moorst, Pearce Quigley, Robert Wilfort, Karl Johnson, Alistair Mackenzie.
Set in Manchester in 1819, after the Napoleonic Wars, this epic film tells of the infamous Peterloo massacre, a shameful but defining moment in British history about which little is known.
A massed crowd of some 60,000 people who had gathered in St Peter’s Field to peacefully to protest, and to demand political reform and relief for increased poverty and unemployment. The crowd had also gathered to hear fiery speeches from the likes of political activist and orator Henry Hunt (played here by Rory Kinnear, from Skyfall, etc). To stop the protest armed and mounted military British forces charged into the unarmed crowd, cutting down women and children indiscriminately, killing fifteen people and wounding hundreds more. The incident was defining moment in British history. It paved the way for the organised union movement, and also played a significant role in the formation of the Guardian newspaper.
Peterloo is the latest film from Mike Leigh, and is also, arguably, the most ambitious to date for the filmmaker who is better known for his more intimate character driven dramas. Leigh is a socialist at heart who wears his heart on his sleeve and whose films have often championed Britain’s working classes, and it is easy to see his attraction to this material. His painstaking recreation of the incident is the most accurate portrayal of the infamous incident yet committed to the screen, and it is fitting that the film has been released to coincide with the 200th anniversary.
Peterloo is a palpable and angry cry of outrage at the injustice of the whole thing. The film is also a polemic about the oppression of the working class and an indictment of the lack of rights of women in British society of the early 1800s. It is also a subtle criticism of modern reporting and highlights the need for accurate and responsible journalism in this era of fake news.
But for all that Peterloo is something of a missed opportunity for Leigh. At a generous 154 minutes the film is way too long. Much of the first hour or so is given over to long and dry discourses which are ultimately of little interest to a modern audience, and the lengthy, lofty speeches slow the film down. And the film itself fails to put the incident into context.
There are far too many characters here, and the audience fail to identify with many nor do they empathise with their plight. The main characters we follow include Joseph (David Moorst in his film debut), a young soldier who returns home from the Napoleonic Wars traumatised and finding it hard to adjust back to a simple life with his hard working family and who gets caught up in events; his mother Nellie (Maxine Peake, recently seen in Funny Cow, etc); and Hunt himself.
Leigh has been meticulous in recreating this period. The film has been nicely shot by Leigh’s regular cinematographer Dick Pope whose warm colour palette captures the era superbly. The crowd scenes were largely created digitally, and it is only during these brutal, confronting climactic scenes does the film come alive.