Historical epics are rare today. Usually requiring budgets reserved for splashy comic book franchises, the genre rarely turns up enough to remind one of its existence. Nevertheless, peaking over the rolling English country hills, and taking place 200 years ago, is the Peterloo Massacre (an event that has never been depicted on film). The massacre, a rallying cry for laborers during the Industrial Revolution, arrived at a crucial point of discontent among the English poor. Director Mike Leigh, in his latest film Peterloo, painstakingly recaptures this enormous event in a historical epic that quietly revitalizes the genre.
Opening at the Battle of Waterloo, the camera pans across the carnage left in the waning moments of the war. Finally, Leigh’s gaze settles upon Joseph (David Moorst): a shell-shocked bugler stumbling across the green and smokey field, intermittently sounding his off-tune horn.
However, Peterloo isn’t a portrait of Joseph’s life (at least, not directly). In fact, he’s a minor character left awash in this large cast.
Leigh and editor Jon Gregory then cross cut between Joseph’s long walk home to his family and Parliament, where a deceleration is passed to award the Duke of Wellington 750,000 £ for his “heroics” at the battle. Leigh, clearly comparing the have and have-nots, also depicts a meeting between Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson) and Sir John Byng (Alastair Mackenzie) where the latter is awarded the title of Home Commander of the Northern District (Manchester and Lancashire) as Joseph still makes his prolonged trek home.
When this exhausted soldier finally arrives back to Manchester, we’re introduced to his family, specifically his mother Nellie (Maxine Peake, who’s subtle as the wise and prescient baker and barterer).
With a 154-minute runtime, Peterloo‘s main draw arrives through the sheer level of detail Leigh devotes to capturing this period. For those without a background in 19th Century English Literature, Art, or History, the Peterloo Massacre requires some grounding. The English monarchy, like many others during the period, was at its most vulnerable. The Napoleonic and Revolutionary Wars, which the film opens with, had bled the country dry. The Bloodless Revolution, occurring over a 100 years prior, still occupied a vital part of English history. And the Prince of Wales ruled as Regent, while King George III, the “Mad King,” lived his final years at Windsor Castle as he recovered from a mental breakdown.
For Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope, Peterloo isn’t their first dive into 19th Century England. Their previous salvo being the biopic Turner. And like the biopic, Pope’s cinematography, dependent upon natural and lamp-lit interiors, transports us into paintings from the Old Masters of the Industrial Revolution.
Leigh finds particular interest in representing the strata of England’s classes (only in a historical epic could such attention be paid to these societal shades of grey. In a particularly amusing scene, the female revolutionaries struggle to communicate with one another. While the leaders speak with a higher diction, two less educated women are left dumbfounded by what they’re saying. The micro-levels among the lower classes effectively plant us within the period rather than treating these revolutionaries as a monolith.
Leigh’s fascination with language also extends to the importance of oration and the written word during the era. With a multitude of low-key observations (and lampoons), Leigh captures several specific styles of oration. One such instance, involves the local judges: Mr Hobhouse (Sam Troughton), Mr. Grout (Roger Sloman), Mr. Golightly (Kenneth Hadley), and Mr. Cobb (Tom Edward-Kane) — who range between lecturing and haranguing in their speaking and writing styles. Each are a type of Malvolio in Leigh’s epic drama.
Nevertheless, Peterloo does suffer from a lack of character development. Every detail relating to the era and classes have been crafted. Left out, are these characters’ mindsets. With little internalization beyond the characters’ obvious gripes and worries, the film lacks the full emotional punch it should have throughout . The closest Leigh comes to either component happens with the introduction of Henry Hunt.
With the refined and self-adsorbed landowner and famous orator’s inclusion, Hunt (Rory Kinnear) pushes Peterloo to its perilous and bloody end. However, before we arrive there Leigh treats us to a couple revealing domestic scenes. While waiting for the rally, Hunt stays with Joseph (Tom Gill) and Mrs. Johnson (Lizzie Frain). The couple’s relationship, subservient and emotionally abused wife to ambitious husband plays in the foreground as Hunt looks down upon Joseph and the visiting Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell). Hunt’s landowning background, with his devotion to himself and the cause is the closest there is to a complex character in Peterloo.
The film climaxes with Hunt’s gathering of reformers in St. Peter’s Square. There, the local judges and businessmen unleash Manchester’s Yeomen and the Royal Guard. Armed with sabers, these soldiers inflict merciless death upon the weaponless assemblage of men, women, and children. The ensuing massacre is unflinchingly shot, as curved blades slash and puncture the chests of men and women, and babies are trampled under horses. Leigh stunningly paints the galvanizing and tragic slaughter to such effect, one wonders why this is the first film adaption of this historic event.
Peterloo, an admittedly lengthy film, demonstrates enough action and stimulating class analysis to make every second worth it.