Mike Leigh’s latest film “Peterloo” attempts to give us a close look into the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, which has been regarded as a significant incident in the British history of civil reform. On August 16th of that year, around 60,000 people from Manchester and its surrounding towns came to St. Peter’s Field in Manchester for participating in a big public meeting for demanding Parliamentary reform and an extension of voting rights, but the overreaction from the armed government militias surrounding the meeting at that time resulted in a devastating tragedy, and, according to Wikipedia, as many as 15 people were killed and up to 700 wounded during this terrible incident.
During its first act, the movie observes the growing public discontent inside the British society during the 1810s. As the war with France is over after the victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the country seems to be going back to its normal state, but millions of working-class people around the country have felt more of the need of civil reform for their better living and working condition, and their situation becomes more urgent and desperate when the government bans buying cheaper imported grains.
When Joseph (David Moorst), a young soldier who served in the Duke of Wellington’s army in the Battle of Waterloo, returns to his family home in Manchester, his family warmly welcomes him, but he soon finds himself struggling to start his normal life again. He looks for any chance of getting employed, but there is not anyone willing to hire him, and his family members cannot help him much as most of them have struggled to earn their living as working at a local cotton mill.
Because there is nothing to do for him, Joseph attends a laborers’ meeting along with his father and brother. At this meeting, several local reform activists including Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell) express their strong political opinions about the civil reform for millions of laborers around the country, and everyone zealously agree with them while being secretly watched by a few suspicious guys at the corner.
One of them is Deputy Chief Constable Nadin (Victor McGuire), who works under a bunch of local magistrates who look as if they had just come right out of Charles Dickens novels. These government officials and other high-ranking government figures in the movie are so haughty and condescending in their stiff attitude that the performers playing them in the film frequently chew their scenes a bit too much, and that is one of the major distractions in the movie in my inconsequential opinion.
While the British government is ready to suppress the growing demand for civil reform by any means necessary (it even suspends Habeas corpus, for instance), Bamford and other activists in Manchester decide to hold a public meeting in St. Peter’s Field, and they invite Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), a renowned activist/orator who has risen with considerable reputation and influence. When he arrives in Manchester, Hunt is not so pleased about the situation and condition surrounding the upcoming meeting, but he reluctantly comes to agree to appear and then give a speech at the meeting, while also firmly emphasizing that there should not be any trouble during the meeting.
Of course, the local magistrates and Nadin do not welcome Hunt much, and they accordingly try to find any excuse for stopping the meeting. While they let the meeting held at St. Peter’s Field because there is no legal way for preventing it, they have the armed government militias surrounding the meeting, and then they wait for a chance to arrest Hunt when Hunt finally arrives at the meeting and is about to begin his speech in front of thousands of people eager to hear every word from him.
During its last 30 minutes, the movie presents the consequent pandemonium following Hunt’s arrest as expected, but the result is rather insipid even though you can clearly sense Leigh’s anger and indignation about the Peterloo Massacre. While he is surely one of the best filmmakers of our time, Leigh shows here that he is not that good at shooting and editing big crowd scenes, and the movie stumbles a lot in its scattershot presentation of the incident.
Furthermore, Leigh does not utilize well many of his cast members. While they are well-cast on the whole, their characters are caricatures mainly existing for making a point to us again and again, and this heavy-handed storytelling approach only makes us more distant to its story and characters. While Rory Kinnear manages to bring some human complexity to his character, the other substantial performers in the film do not have many things to do except filling their respective roles as required, and that is really peculiar considering how Leigh has always brought out the best from the performers in his films.
Despite being well-intentioned, “Peterloo” is a misfire hampered a lot by its weak storytelling and thin characterization, and it is a major letdown from a great filmmaker who has never disappointed us for more than four decades with a series of wonderful works ranging from “Bleak Moments” (1971) to “Mr. Turner” (2014). Sure, I came to learn a bit about the Peterloo Massacre thanks to this movie, but it did not engage me much, and I only came to wish for a better film in the end.