Review – Mike Leigh delivers a violent history lesson with ‘Peterloo’

Poster for 2018 historical drama Peterloo

Genre: Drama
Certificate: 12
UK Release Date: 2nd November 2018
Runtime: 154 minutes
Director: Mike Leigh
Writer: Mike Leigh
Starring: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Tim McInnerny, Robert Wilfort, Karl Johnson, Sam Troughton, Nico Mirallegro, Danny Kirrane
Synopsis: In the early 19th century, a grassroots movement in and around Manchester begins to agitate for more suffrage in the UK, leading to a peaceful protest that was brutally attacked by the military.



When I first heard about Peterloo, I was stunned that I hadn’t heard its true story before. The tale of a peaceful protest that was broken up in such a brutal way by the powers that be that it would justify a comparison to Waterloo seems like exactly the sort of thing that history lessons should discuss. However, for me and many others, Mike Leigh‘s movie will be the first they have heard about this momentous event. Leigh, thankfully, is a filmmaker who has proven more than up to the challenge.

Peterloo is a fiercely polemical movie, contrasting the intelligent, perceptive Northerners on a quest for suffrage against the snarling, elitist judges and law enforcers who hold them down and the grinning opulence of the upper echelons of London-centric British power, represented by Tim McInnerny‘s grotesquely ambivalent Prince Regent. In amongst political speeches by the activists, a separate thread sees the movement recruit the renowned orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) as the keynote speaker for their huge gathering at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester. It’s a gathering that very quickly turns sour as the cavalry charges in, with swords drawn.

Leigh’s approach to the material is an exhaustive, and occasionally exhausting, one. Leigh knows that this film will serve as a didactic experience and so he tends towards detail, occasionally at the expense of drama. Whenever a character mentions a concept that viewers may not understand – habeas corpus, corn laws, etc – there’s a clunky slice of exposition that comes across as if it has been regurgitated from a textbook. Many of the speeches essentially rehearse the same arguments and, though they are eloquent and delivered with power, I was dying for at least one of them to be replaced with a Les Misérables musical number.

The film always feels as if it’s moving, though. There’s an urgency to the increasingly radical rhetoric that mounts as the movie progresses, even as the likes of Maxine Peake‘s housewife struggle to imagine that anything will change. When Kinnear’s orator arrives in town, complete with a slightly pompous attitude and an arrogance that suggests he feels his own fame is more important than the cause, the Northerners are excited and enthused at the prospect of being heard. It’s this that makes the scenes of the massacre hit even harder. We have spent two hours with these characters and we care not just about their political cause, but about them as well.

Leigh, directing action for perhaps the first time ever, plants the audience right in the heart of the violence. It’s an unflinching look at the abject horror of what happened, including the shocking moment in which a babe in arms is knocked from his mother’s grasp and trampled by rampaging hooves. With the wealthy judges and local politicians safely ensconced in an attic room above the fields, they are able to watch from a distance as the Yeomanry they have called for arrives to meet peace with violence.

Peterloo is a potent and vital movie that shines a spotlight on a moment of history that is certainly still relevant today. Leigh ends Peterloo on a haunting note, with the royals and politicians drinking to England and to “tranquility” as dead bodies lie dirty and ignored on the fields of what the press has just called Peterloo. It’s a punch that feels outrageous even now, two centuries after the people fell. Because an uncaring elite with its boot on the throat of the poor is entirely alien in 2018, right?


Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

He gets a little hung up at times on his desire to deliver a history lesson, but Peterloo is a vital film from Mike Leigh on what is perhaps the most ambitious canvas of his glittering career. Rory Kinnear and Maxine Peake shine as figures at the heart of a political movement that would meet with extraordinary tragedy at the hands of an elite terrified at the prospect of losing its stranglehold on power. Leigh picks his punches well, and lands just about every one.


Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

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