Film Review: Peterloo


A timely, nuanced tale of a forgotten historical event. 

Initial Release: 2 November, 2018 (United Kingdom)
Director: Mike Leigh
Cast:    Maxine Peake, Nico Mirallegro, Rory Kinnear, Adam Long
Language: English
Rating: 8/10

Mike Leigh, notable for his unpretentious and restrained approach to film-making, often delivers wonderfully candid or jocund plots that lean towards the more ordinary facets of human existence. Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) and Another Year (2010) are just two titles that perfectly illustrate his capability in this sense. While tackling the pedestrian itself must be highly exacting, Leigh certainly isn’t afraid to face other projects that would test the skills of any writer/director. He’s proven himself with movies like Naked (1993) and Vera Drake (2004), which treated the difficult, sensitive subjects of sex addiction and illegal abortions – respectively – in such a clever way that the end products were wholly palatable.

Leigh achieves the same effect with his epic Peterloo. From start to finish, he handles a sober, intricate topic with an unusual lack of complexity, dropping in a pinch of black comedy now and then. This is the exact film that we need at this precise moment in time. Extremely topical, this powerful British historical drama shows us how ugly rhetoric can descend chaotically into gratuitous conflict. When compared with the ubiquitous bombast-fuelled violence scattered across the globe today, Peterloo bespeaks the incompetence of people to learn from past mistakes.

The film, based on the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, marks the 200th anniversary of the bloody political confrontation. On 16 August 1819, somewhere between 60,000 to 80,000 impassioned folks from the Manchester area came together for a pro-democracy rally. In St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester, an unarmed crowd who refused to be “awed into submission” peacefully called for parliamentary reform and an extension of voting rights to women. They were soon charged by a volatile band of mounted “yeoman” troops violently swinging their sabres. The number of casualties resulting has long been cause for dispute, but up to 18 people were killed and several hundred more injured in the attack.

Although the story ends on a bleak note, the massacre did act as a fairly instantaneous catalyst for the very reform the demonstrators had sought that ill-fated day, helping to expedite the progress of suffrage in Britain. In a desperate bid to avoid rebellion, the Janus-faced government – pleased with the overall outcome – turned the duplicity behind the incident on its head. Yet, from the clamour that followed Peterloo, the face of journalism was altered with the founding of the Manchester Guardian, forerunner to the renowned Guardian newspaper.  

Here, in a savage spectacle, Leigh offers us his dynamic interpretation of the little-known, poorly-understood event. At the cinema this morning, I was taken on a breath-taking expedition back in time, to around four years before the massacre. This epic first immerses viewers in the tenebrous, sincere poverty and hardship of its opening scenes before directing them through the carefully orchestrated, frenzied symphony of colours that characterise the film’s later massacre scenes.

Peterloo’s balanced narrative is near flawless, as is the acting of its huge ensemble cast. Each performance is as convincing as the last, with Leigh ensuring that he spans the width of British society of the period. To name but a few that stand out, he treats us to: campaigning political reformer Henry Hunt (Greg Kinnear); super resilient working-class mother Nellie (Maxine Peake); her traumatised soldier son Joseph (David Moorst), just back from the Battle of Waterloo; crafty, foul-tempered Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson), dull-as-dishwater Prime Minister Lord Liverpool (Robert Wilfort); over-indulgent Prince Regent (Tim McInnery); and debonair General Sir John Byng (Alastair Mackenzie).

Despite the enormous cast, Leigh succeeds in bringing to the story’s characters the same realistic nuances with which we’ve become so familiar. I must confess that I’m not a stalwart fan of historical dramas, but I simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to find out what Leigh had done with the £14 million budget thrown at him by the film’s production company Amazon Studios.

On the whole, while I wasn’t left crestfallen, I can’t help but feel that the sheer number of characters – and all of the largely enthralling darting between them – helped to slow Peterloo’s momentum at times. Could it be that Leigh stretched himself a smidgen too thin here? That said, perhaps such a tactic was necessary to underline the lack of protagonist and the joint suffering of the events that unfold. Whatever the case, it didn’t disadvantage the film’s overall impact.

Peterloo is without doubt a majestic creature worthy of reverence. You’ll have to welcome it with (very) open arms – there’s a lot to embrace here. I truly hope that Leigh is afforded more mammoth budgets like this in future, because it served to amplify the skills of this genius, taking his capabilities to a whole new level. Peterloo is Leigh at his finest and shouldn’t be missed under any circumstances.


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