If you were a school student in England between the years of 1994 and 2008 like I was, then it think it’s probably fair to assume that you have an extensive knowledge of the Tudors, the Victorian era, the Second World War, and not much else! Education’s obsession with all things Henry VIII means that there are significant gaps in my historical knowledge, and the Peterloo Massacre was certainly one of them. Who better than the esteemed Mike Leigh to tell me all about it, right?
Unfortunately, turns out this was the kind of history lesson with an interesting subject but a boring teacher. Peterloo tells the story of an 1819 massacre that took place in St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester when some 30,000 working class Northerners gathered to peacefully protest for parliamentary reform. In heavy handed attempt to disperse the crowds, more than a dozen people were killed including men, women and children, with hundred more injured in the chaos.
The film clearly has a passion for portraying the minutia of things like the Corn Laws and suffrage, but in being so dedicated to its political cause, Peterloo forgets to give the film an emotional heart until the last twenty minutes of the picture. For a film that is two and half hours in length, this just isn’t enough. The bulk of the narrative consists of one character after another giving a rousing (but dry) speech about reformation to a nondescript crowd of people, as the clock ticks closer and closer to the inevitable climax without any real stakes being built at all. It’s a complete shame in my opinion, because the pacing and focus decisions made by the filmmakers turns an incredible interesting period in history in to a, to be honest, super dull affair.
That isn’t to say there aren’t a few positives to come out of Peterloo. The film shines a different light on a period that you don’t to see on the big screen much outside of the Jane Austen universe. There is something refreshing about experiencing a conflicting view of the contemporary culture, we certainly aren’t within the quaint walls of Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley estate now! The plight and poverty of Manchester’s working class as glimpsed by an unnamed family lead by a matriarch played by Maxine Peak provide the biggest emotional attachment of the picture, and the more human, family based parts of the story feel much more engaging than the sixth, seventh, eighth, and eighteenth identical monologues on reform. This film could have been presented in a much more economical 90 minute fashion, with some of the dry political overindulgence replaced with more character development to create a much more rewarding climax in a cinematic sense.
There is no doubting that I have come away from Peterloo with a good understanding of what lead to the dreadful event at St. Peter’s Field in 1819, but what I can’t say is that I had a fun time learning it. I respect Mike Leigh for the clear extent of his passion regarding the injustices, but at the same time I can’t help but feel that he has sacrificed audience enjoyment in favour of making sure that as many different characters as possible get their chance to identically rage against the machine. The film needs a defter touch and heavier editing hand.
As I alluded to, Peterloo struggles with an inability to settle on any true charismatic or stand out protagonist, suffering on the worse end of the spectrum when it comes to ensemble pieces. Actors such as John Paul Hurley, Philip Jackson, Ian Mercer and Rory Kinnear all give strong performances as various reform activists, one presumes a mixture of real life figures and narrative creations. Though this assorted cast do their best, and there are many others to mention, it does end up feeling like a roll call of different men taking centre stage for ten minutes in order to unleash their political anger, the detrimental fact being that in more or less words, they are saying exactly the same thing.
As Manchester matriarch Nellie, Maxine Peak gives us the closest thing to an audience surrogate that the film has, a struggling mother with a husband and son (Pearce Quigley and John Meredith) dedicated to the cause, and another son recently returned from the Battle of Waterloo (David Moorst). In my ideal world, the film would have been completely centred around this interesting and engaging family, with the events of the reformation cause and Peterloo massacre being brought in to their lives and thus our viewing experience organically. Unfortunately, Peake and co. are absent for large swaths of the narrative, and these are the minutes that feel like they take years off of your life.
Overall, Peterloo is best described as a history lesson that forgot it is supposed to be an entertaining film at the same time. At two and half hours in length, I’m afraid to say it feels even longer, with the climactic titular event somehow managing to seem rushed in the final third. It’s dryer than an Australian drought, with intended emotional moments that don’t feel as impactful because little character development has been attempted. Sorry Mr. Leigh, I was bored.