In the Summer of 1819, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution, a crowd of tens of thousands of people assembled to demand parliamentary reform. The authorities demanded the meeting be broken up by cavalry charge, resulting in a dozen deaths and hundreds of injuries. The film follows some of the characters involved in the massacre, including a Northern family whose son has just returned from the Battle of Waterloo.
Mike Leigh’s greatest strength has always been dialogue and character. He handles little moments of domesticity with great affection. He is capable of the greatest naturalism which builds real pathos for his characters, especially when they are subject to terrible injustice. The film moves very quickly and covers a lot of ground, so there’s little room to become too develop every character. Three standouts are Maxine Peake’s practical and embittered mum Nellie, Rory Kinnear’s passionate but naive Henry Hunt and Neil Bell’s charismatic pragmatist Samuel Bamford.
The wonderful stylistic flourishes of Dick Pope’s camera and the luscious production design is as effective here as it was in Topsy Turvy and Mr. Turner. Here the film resembles stately landscapes of the time, and effortlessly invokes the squalor of impoverished 19th century Manchester, as well as the busy energy of the meeting halls.
The event itself has a unique energy to it. Both the protest and the resultant massacre unfold with a strange awkwardness that actually lends to the authenticity. Characters spend an unnatural amount of time standing on a stage waving at the crowd, before the massacre begins with a slightly awkward stop start, in which it’s unclear if the entire crowd is aware of what’s happening. The scope of spectacle is not permitted to detract from the horror of the act. As those in power needlessly charge and cut down the families underfoot, there’s a horrible difficulty to every act of cruelty.
The film is not one for nuance. There is very definitely a side for good and a side for injustice. Those in power are portrayed with all the grotesquery of a Gerard Scarfe political cartoon. The main antagonists are introduced overseeing the cruel punishment of petty criminals. They are frequently seen barking orders and acting odiously. Tim McInnerny’s performance as Prince Regent perhaps rivals that of Hugh Laurie for cartoon villainy. This detracts from the sincerity with which Leigh attempts to portray the events.
Peterloo is a hugely ambitious and largely successful work of historical filmmaking. Leigh presents one of the most painful yet pertinent episodes of British history with fabulous authenticity and spectacle. If his fervor sometimes detracts from the realism of the piece and the sentimentality occasionally feels like sermonizing, it is the only testament to the urgency with which Leigh unfolds his tale of injustice.