Cast: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, David Moorst, Rachel Finnegan, Tom Meredith, Karl Johnson, Tim McInnerny
Director: Mike Leigh
Running time: 2 hours 34 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The 1819 massacre in Manchester which killed 15 and wounded hundreds when cavalrymen began shooting and trampling workers demanding political reform is a sad chapter in British history. To that end, there’s very few filmmakers more equipped to bring such an event to the screen than writer-director Mike Leigh, whose impressive body of work has consistently shown sympathy for the British working-class. Even if his concerns more adroitly address modern blue-collar life, Leigh’s period films such as Vera Drake and Mr. Turner have taken historical context and narrowed the scope to focus on intimate relationships. His latest film, Peterloo, favors a long view take on the organizational elements of the suffrage movement while sacrificing the personal aspects. Therefore, the long-winded speechifying and monologues (of which there are many) are interesting only in a broad sense. Overall, the film lacks the sense of righteous indignation this story truly demands.
Part of the problem here is Leigh’s decision to introduce a sprawling cast of characters without bothering to flesh them out beyond broad strokes. There are extremists, moderates, and those unsure where to place their trust, and if there’s a lead character here, it might be the arrogant Henry Hunt (Rory Kinear), a charismatic speaker who many hope will sway the masses. Mostly, the film sets up these clashing perspectives and then runs in circles with a series of meetings held in secret. Rarely do we get any insight into the inner lives of these people, which makes the tragic conclusion feel all the more removed.
Leigh does illustrate the ways in which the elite are abusing the lower class, and scenes of magistrates dressed garishly in extravagant rooms while complaining about the poor are one-dimensional yet effective, with Magistrate Rev Etlhelson (Vincent Franklin) in particular shouting into the void like a buffoon. However, such moments are repeated so often that the film begins veering into the realm of satire without the bite needed to fully land its comedic punch.
Working with cinematographer Dick Pope (who also shot the gorgeous Mr. Turner), Leigh successfully channels the look of the era, but there’s something unusually flat about the compositions here which makes one long for the wildly unpredictable tenor of early films like Meantime and Naked. Peterloo is meticulously staged and well-meaning, and even if the climax is handled with a sure-handed verisimilitude, there’s very little in the way of meaningful catharsis. Since the film is presented as such an exacting history lesson, this moment of chaotic violence is probably supposed to jar the audience into shock and awe, but it works only in the technical sense. Leigh never invites us in. Never bothers to open us up to these people aside from their ideologies. Never presents their zeal and anger at a broken system from an emotional perspective.
Peterloo is a misfire, but it’s parallels with modern day issues of militarized law enforcement and economic inequality are alarmingly familiar. Had Leigh invested these themes with the same kind of intimacy and personal anguish of his past work, then this could have been yet another rousing call to action. Instead, the film lacks the one thing any type of political reform needs to be successful; the plight of the individual.