Film Review: Peterloo

Historical Political Drama Proves Social Injustice Is Nothing New

Devin D. O'Leary
6 min read
“Which one of us is Jean Valjean?”
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The films of British writer-director Mike Leigh fall most firmly into the subgenre known as “kitchen sink realism.” Pioneered by such noted British filmmakers as Tony Richardson (Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey) and Ken Loach (Poor Cow, Kes), these stories generally take a gritty and unvarnished look at the domestic lives of working class families. Leigh’s résumé (Life is Sweet, Naked, Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky) is packed with iconic examples. Though Leigh’s newest film trades obsessive modern-day realism for detailed historical accuracy, it falls right in line with those previous, generally downbeat dramas.

Peterloo is set in 1819, in the immediate aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Though the Battle of Waterloo was a major victory for the English army and marked an end to the Napoleonic Wars, it had enormous repercussions back home in England. The film starts by introducing us to Joseph (David Moorst), a PTSD-stricken soldier living wide-eyed and slack-jawed through the closing moments of the war. He survives, only to return to his impoverished, mill-working family back in Manchester. Don’t mistake poor Joseph as our main point of perspective, however.

Over the course of a looong two hours and 32 minutes, Leigh introduces us to a confusing panoply of characters, hailing from what the press notes identify as 11 different social substrata. (Yowch.) On the opposite end of the spectrum, by way of example, we get Sir John Byng (Alastair Mackenzie), a certified, upper-crust hero of the Napoleonic Wars who is appointed Northern District commander—despite coveting a post in Ireland. (That particular posting will eventually come to bite him on the ass, trust me.) In between those two extremes, we’ve got Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), a celebrated orator with distinct democratic leanings and a gift for gab.

It seems that these and countless other characters are swept up in the complicated legacy of England’s war with France. Cash-strapped from fighting a decade-plus war on the continent, England did what most countries always did and still do—pass the cost of conflict on to those least able to pay for it. After recruiting countless sons of farmers, miners and mill workers to serves as cannon fodder during the war, the English Crown now piles on various economic burdens (like the infamous “bread tax”), which have a disproportionate effect on the poor. (It’s worth noting that the English Crown is here embodied by a cartoonishly uncaring Prince Regent played by Tim McInnerny—who had some practice playing the foppish fool Lord Percy on Rowan Atkinson’s “Blackadder.”)

These cruel economic/political policies get the general rabble talking. And most of that talk centers on the general idea of: “When has the government ever done anything to help us?” (as Joseph’s perpetually beaten-down-by-life mother succinctly puts it). Soon the people are discussing such seditious behavior as unionizing labor and democratizing the government. Naturally, the Crown doesn’t take too kindly to such whisperings. It’s not long before the British government responds—badly.

Of course, this general outline of events barely scratches the surface. Leigh’s explication of the various dissents and discontents of the era is nothing if not exhaustive. The majority of
Peterloo consists of parliamentary debates, public speeches, talkative rallies, lengthy monologues and spirited dinner table conversations among family members. As we learn more about the various grievances on the streets of England, Peterloo starts to feel more like a lengthy political history lecture than a cinematic drama. (Don’t know anything about, for example, the Manchester Female Reform Society?—You will!)

If Leigh weren’t building up to something,
Peterloo would be a righteous but ultimately inert exercise in early 19th century political activism. History (and this film) will record, however, that all of that talk on the street eventually led to something called the Peterloo Massacre—in which some 70,000 Brits gathered on St. Peter’s Field in Waterloo to demand reform of parliamentary representation. Still stinging from a certain, rather famous demand for “no taxation without representation,” local Tory magistrates and a bunch of King’s Cavalry soldiers turned on the “political radicals.” A number of people were killed and a lot of folks were injured in the ensuing chaos.

Leigh stages his film with a certain sense of predestination and doom. The Peterloo Massacre, he seems to be saying, is the natural and inescapable conclusion of the conflict between oppressed people and an uncaring government. His sympathies are unwaveringly with the protesters, the marchers and the suffragists. It takes very little leap of logic to see just what Leigh’s driving at here. Increasingly conservative governments in conflict with increasingly enlightened citizens, angry over “economic austerity” plans and the hypocritical entitlements that the rich always seem to enjoy? That’s something that sounds as familiar in 21st century England (America, etc.) as it did in 19th century England.

It’s this final riotous destination, staffed with hundreds of actors and choreographed with a gripping energy, that gives
Peterloo the punch that it both wants and needs. If the ensuing two hours feel like cramming for a last-minute English History test, the final 30 minutes feel like getting caught smack dab in the middle of a shockingly realistic historical reenactment. With all its blood and panic and waves of armed law enforcement beating down citizens, it becomes blisteringly clear that everything from the Peterloo Massacre to the Kent State shootings to the 1999 Seattle WTO protests to France’s recent “Yellow Vest” movement share a similar thread of DNA.

Over the course of
Peterloo, Leigh applies as much “kitchen sink realism” to 1819 as he does to 2019. This isn’t some glossy, well-manicured BBC look at history. The candlelit cinematography (courtesy of Dick Pope, who shot Leigh’s historical biopic Mr. Turner), is alternately beautiful and gritty. The overall look hovers somewhere between the seedy, black and white reality of William Hogarth prints and the glowing romanticism of Edmund Blair Leighton’s paintings. Only the broad, epic nature of the story being told robs Leigh’s narrative of the intimate impact his other films hold. With so many damn characters competing for the spotlight, it’s hard to find a well-rounded one in the bunch. Rory Kinnear’s orator, caught between upper-class upbringing and true democratic sympathies, comes the closest. The rest are mostly around to mouthpiece various political stances, often loudly and with raised fists.

As a righteously indignant piece of agitprop—fired by a famed artist on behalf of the working class and aimed squarely at the 1 percent—
Peterloo is pointed, immersive, unyielding and purposefully timely. But it demands a great deal of sympathy and patience from its audiences, who must endure an awful lot of lip-flap before arriving at the explosive heart of the story.
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