American moviegoing audiences have never been particularly well known for their patience, a patience that is absolutely required in order to appreciate Mike Leigh's precise retelling of an incident that likely remains unknown to a good majority of Americans.
Arriving in theaters just shy of the bicentennial of Peterloo, Mike Leigh's extraordinarily broad and insightful Peterloo tells the story of events leading up to the massacre that unfolded on August 16, 1819, a massacre fueled by conditions that Leigh undeniably recognizes as bubbling underneath the surface of today's political climate including an ever-increasing mistrust of government and a widening economic gap creating a growing sense of desperation among many.
Peterloo intensely covers the events leading up to the actual massacre, an approach not exactly uncommon but very seldom given the attention to detail they are given here. As is true for a good majority of Leigh's films, Peterloo is a dialogue-heavy film, especially in the first half, and for those less familiar with the unfolding events this may be difficult to track as Leigh is, without question, far more concerned about the actual events unfolding than the individual characters. Peterloo is an ensemble motion picture and for American audiences used to being spoon-fed who's the enemy and who's the hero it may prove to be a frustrating view.
The film is set in Manchester a few years after the Napoleonic wars, England has been gripped by a resulting economic crisis and radical activists are growing in numbers and in volume. With a waive of social political demands, the Manchester Patriotic Union is preparing for a mass protest on August 16, 1819 to feature one of the nation's most well known of the radicals, Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear). With a massive crowd expected, local authority figures are more than a little worked up about it all even in the days leading up to the protest.
While in many ways rather straightforward in its telling of the events, Leigh spares very few details within his dialogue and the film clocks in at an overly long 154 minute running time. It's excessive for sure, feeling moreso in the film's opening half, but there's such a sense of urgency throughout the film that it's easy to understand why Leigh refused to compromise his artistic vision for the film.
With local authorities increasingly concerned about the expected 60,000 protestors and their potentially "dangerous" rhetoric, the cavalry is called in to quell the rebellion and to arrest its leaders including Hunt himself. While the protest itself had been largely peaceful, chaos ensued and tragedy followed that was condemned by the media while justified by the powers that be.
While the first half of Peterloo feels overly long, for those with enough patience the second half of the film justifies Leigh's approach and Peterloo becomes absolutely mesmerizing in the second half as Leigh uses CGI to create a remarkable reconstruction of St. Peter's Field and the masses that gathered. The unfolding chaos is powerfully portrayed, both the complete and utter shock of peaceful protestors and the subsequent devastation as the violent response offered by authorities intensifies. It's absolutely compelling cinema and yet, if we're being honest, ever the more frightening because it feels so incredibly familiar.
Dick Pope's lensing is intimate and jarring, while the entire ensemble mostly blurs by with a few exceptions - Pearce Quigley's optimist Joshua alongside his more guarded wife, Nellie (Maxine Peake), Neil Bell's Samuel Bamford, David Moorst's Joseph, and, as one of the film's true bad guys, Victor McGuire is riveting as Deputy Chief Constable Nadin.
Peterloo is an intelligent, insightful and beautifully rendered motion picture that is, quite fortunately, going the arthouse route so that it can get the indie attention it deserves from Amazon Studios. It's the kind of film that here in America seems to have a stronger life on home video, though many of the film's scenes, especially in the second half, warrant catching the film on the big screen if possible. Easily one of the broader films to be tackled by Mike Leigh in quite some time, Peterloo is compelling cinema for the discerning moviegoer.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic