Film Review – Peterloo (2018)

In a period when we are being faced with some of the biggest challenges we have seen both politically and economically, many will look back at history as something of a lesson to what has perhaps transpired before and how we can help change our future. Recently, figures such as Winston Churchill and Robert The Bruce (Outlaw King) have been the subject of new dramatisations, their legendary status and defiance shown as beacons of hope and the promise that tomorrow will bring a change. Peterloo, Mike Leigh’s latest endeavour, seeks to bring similar history to the fore in the hopes that it will stir change in the modern Britain as it descends down similar paths.

Transporting us back to around 1819, Peterloo was dubbed as such after the events that transpired on August 16th of that year and their horrible similarities to the Battle of Waterloo which had led to hundreds of thousands dead four years earlier. Since then, Britain had seen a rise in famine, unemployment and political issues were felt no harder than in Northern England where many families had to live on the breadline, soldiers were almost forgotten about post-War and where the right to vote had led to radicalism. All very familiar.

You can see why Leigh wanted to make such a film in 2018 given its relevance to the modern political landscapes and the ever changing “Deal or No Deal” scenario with Brexit: “We are on the brink of liberty” says one man as he speaks at one of the many rallies to bring together those who are suffering that want change and it rings true now given similar stakes in a different time (it has been 300 years since Peterloo and yet, for all its significance, many are unaware of it). But where such a speech provides a stirring prospect for both us a viewer and those in the vicinity, its power is lost when the proceeding runtime is made up almost exclusively of them, without much in-between.

The moments with Maxine Peake and her family provide some distraction: their plight and subsequent battles are the film’s outstanding scenes, but they are lost among speech after speech, so that it all soon becomes monotonous and dull You can’t fault his attention to detail, however, with every moment on screen feeling like being transported back in time. Costumes, settings and landscapes burst from the screen with their richness, captured beautifully by legendary cinematographer Dick Pope, whose lens is crisp and sharp, taking its time to showcase the amazing production design and its surroundings but, sadly, it isn’t enough to save the film from the realms of meandering.

While there is much to admire about Peterloo, from its wonderful look and pertinent stories, it’s a shame that the film surrounding it all feels like such a disappointment. All the elements are there for a stirring, important historical epic – particularly in the final third – but amongst the long rhetoric it puts so much faith in, it fails to deliver on its promise, which is such a shame.

Scott J.Davis |


Drama, History | 12A | UK, 2018 | 2nd November 2018 (UK) | Entertainment One | Dir. Mike Leigh | Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, Philip Jackson, Ian Mercer,  Victor McGuire.

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