Directed by Mike Leigh
Director Mike Leigh is known for kitchen-sink dramas, such as Secrets and Lies, and for genial period pieces such as Mr Turner. The two collide in Peterloo, his account of the 1819 massacre. Waterloo veteran Joseph (David Moorst) returns home to his family in Oldham to a world of high unemployment and falling wages. The protectionist Corn Laws have pushed up the price of food, making it harder to make ends meet. With the authorities cracking down on dissent, reformers are divided between those pushing for an armed uprising and those, like orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), who want peaceful change.
Leigh does a good job of detailing the various economic and political issues that brought matters to a head at Peterloo. Chief among them was the recession that immediately followed the Napoleonic Wars, creating unemployment and driving down the wages of those lucky enough to find work. The film also points out that, while industrialisation raised overall living standards, it also reduced the status of skilled workers. The corrupt political establishment, who were willing to give huge sums to the Duke of Wellington, but were opposed to making any political concessions, also played a big part in the discontent.
Another theme is the divide between the upper middle-class reformers, represented by Hunt and the staff of the Manchester Observer, and mill-workers who were either starving or living in poverty. Although Leigh ultimately endorses Hunt’s non-violent approach, he is not afraid to emphasise Hunt’s aloof, snobbish and self-important side. He shows that the reformers lived in a world far removed from the ordinary person, not averse to keeping the servants in their place even while campaigning for the downtrodden. Similarly, the outrage of the organisers at their arrest seems slightly petulant set against the large number of dead and wounded protesters.
The problem with Peterloo is that there are just so many individual stories that, despite the two-and-a-half-hour running time, there is no single character who commands our attention. There are a lot of intriguing plot threads that end up being left hanging. Some of the performances are so over-the-top that they end up being a distraction from the plot. We see the magistrates sentencing someone to hanging for stealing a coat, and later urging soldiers to attack unarmed protestors, for example – it’s hardly necessary to have them gurn and rub their hands with glee like pantomime villains.
Overall, Peterloo is a solid costume drama that shines a light on a significant piece of social and economic history. With a bit of trimming and some more focus on one or two key characters, it could have been a much better film.