Peterloo probably isn’t a title that will resonate much outside of the North West. The Peterloo Massacre of 1819 saw a huge pro-democracy rally at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester attacked by soldiers on horseback, wielding razor sharp sabres. In a bloody slaughter of the innocents, 15 people died and hundreds were injured – men, women and children – and it was supported by the establishment. Today, there’s just a small blue plaque to mark the spot and the event has dropped off the school curriculum.
Legendary British director Mike Leigh uses his latest film to take aim at the current ruling class and, while his anger and passion comes very much to the fore in the later stages, the overall result is of an unsharpened sabre, one that’s really rather blunt. The title of both the event and film is a hybrid of St Peter’s and Waterloo, the celebrated battle which takes centre stage in the opening scenes. The camera zooms in on bugler Joseph (David Moorst), who survives the carnage and returns home, suffering severely from PTSD, to his family in the North West. The mill keeps reducing their wages, grinding poverty is the result and Joseph, his parents and siblings are the “common man” thread running throughout the film. There’s an establishment one as well, this time representing the great and the good of Manchester, the judiciary and the church for starters.
The two groups move in parallel as the narrative builds towards the rally and that, in itself, is effective. But the way Leigh uses them to explain aspects of life and society at the time doesn’t. We’re treated to heavy handed history lessons on “them Corn Laws” from the family, while the toffs discuss Habeas Corpus and give us a blow by blow explanation, just in case we don’t know what it is. He assumes a worrying lack of knowledge on the part of his audience – not a wise move – and yet, curiously, at the end there aren’t the expected captions outlining what happened after Peterloo.
Much of the film is taken up preparing for the rally, giving context and establishing the many characters. There’s also comparatively little in the way of actual dialogue, replaced by a lot of long speeches. Despite Leigh’s desire to paint an authentic and accurate picture of the times, it simply isn’t cinematic. By contrast, the rally and the massacre itself are superbly staged on both the broadest and most personal of canvasses, with some truly shocking moments. They fully deserve the big screen treatment they receive.
The cast is, inevitably, vast, with plenty of familiar British faces, from Julie Hesmondhalgh in a non-speaking role, to Tim McInnerny as the Prince Regent – yes, Blackadder’s Percy plays the Hugh Laurie role and hams it up good and proper. Rory Kinnear is the star turn as the renowned Orator Hunt, a Wiltshire farmer with democratic convictions and a gift for public speaking. Getting him to address the Manchester crowd is a coup for the organisers, but once off the stage he’s a man who’s ill at ease with working people, regardless of his principles, a vain snob in a white hat.
For Leigh, it doesn’t get more personal than this – he was brought up close to St Peter’s Fields – and there’s no denying that his personal investment shows. But the fact that it’s so close to his heart may have turned out to be a disadvantage. It may be an epic story, but it’s still too long, seriously flagging at times, often when a speech is in full flow. Peterloo is Leigh at his most fervent and most sincere, but not Leigh at his best.
Freda Cooper | ★★1/2
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Drama, History | 12A | London Film Festival 17 and 19 October (2018) | UK, 2 November (2018) | EntertainmentOne | Dir. Mike Leigh | Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, Philip Jackson, Ian Mercer, Victor McGuire.