- 02 Nov 18
Mike Leigh's historical epic is exhaustive - but also exhausting.
In many ways, Peterloo is an odd film for Mike Leigh. Known for his intimate kitchen-sink dramas, Leighı's politics are tucked into the folds of his characters' lives, and subtly play out in the domestic realm. But with Peterloo, an enraged historical epic about the 1819 Peterloo Massacre - which saw the British Tory government order a deadly military charge against peaceful protesters - Leigh undoes all of his usual directorial trademarks. There's a massive cast, and the dialogue overflows with speeches, monologues and political oratory.
Certainly, there is an intriguing authenticity to Leigh's approach, which can occasionally feel like a cinematic cramming session, filled with important figures and seminal events. This period was itself marked by hardship, and the social movement seeking fair wages and a vote for the working class grew through speeches and rallies attended by ordinary people seeking change. Leigh wants to respect and represent these individuals and their determination in the face of abject poverty. He lets us hear the concerns of working-class women at meetings, recreates speeches given by radicals and reformers in small town halls, and shows us how the often cartoonishly grotesque ruling class attempted to quell any proposed changes.
Unfortunately, the sheer volume of characters and their relentless rhetoric means itıs impossible to understand any of them on a personal level. The final massacre is terrifying in its cruelty and viciousness, rendered all the more horrifying because we understand how reasonable the protesters' demands are, and how determined they were to avoid violence. Peterloo is a vital story about the powerless and the powerful, and we understand it due to Leighıs approach - but it could have been much more impactful had we understood the characters, too.