The Peterloo massacre is relatively unknown event among British people, yet it was still nominated as one of the events most in need of a proper memorial to commemorate the 15 people who were mowed down by the 15th Hussars in 1819. Mike Leigh’s film follows a shell-shocked soldier and his family as they try to live on meagre suppliers as their oppressors live lavishly off their hard work and suffering. Eventually, the family become involved in the revolutionary movement and find themselves at Petersfield on that fateful day.
Directors like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach have their fingers on the pulse of the working-class ills and woes more than any other British director. Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake was a timely release and Leigh’s biggest film to date also corresponds with a time central government fail to understand the gripes of the north (hence Brexit being such a surprise). The parallels between the 1819 are very tenuous but there has always been animosity between London and the outer reaches of the United Kingdom.
However, for someone who is so in touch with working class issues, Leigh’s film is disappointingly simple in how it depicts its characters. The ruling class are depicted as fat, conniving cowards whilst the generosity and sprit of the working class can never be bettered. Leigh’s film would have a far greater impact if the caricatures of the filthy rich and overweight ruling class weren’t so greatly exaggerated. It had the impact of them being so cartoonishly evil they were fun to watch rather the viewer being disgusted with their oppressive behaviour.
Clocking in at 150 minutes, Peterloo is one of Leigh’s longer efforts of late. It is certainly his grandest effort as the film is epic in scope because of the broad canvas the film is painted yet the film still feels as though it belongs on the stage. The static (and slightly bland) cinematography and huge list of characters, who say and do little, gives the film a somewhat ‘stagey’ feel as the characters step on and off the carrousel. Another aspect that gives the us the feeling we’re watching a stage play are the frequent rousing speeches where the actors give it their all. These speeches show what spurred the working classes into an act of protest, but by the third or fourth speech it becomes apparent they are all saying the same thing thus each speech serves little purpose other than letting the actor show off their acting chops.
The film is at is strongest during, and the build up to, the central event. As the crowds gather in Manchester there is an undeniable tension in the air as the audience waits with bated breath for the slaughter to begin. When it does, Leigh doesn’t hold back. The slaughter isn’t excessively gory but the unprompted and unprovoked attack on an unarmed people remains shocking. A little more on the aftermath of the attack would have been of benefit to the film, but the courtyard littered with bodies of men and women is a powerful image to leave us on.