The British may have defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, but all was not well back home. In the years that followed, unrest in Manchester led to what became known in British History as the “Peterloo Massacre.” That is the subject of the detailed, expansive new film by “Another Year” director Mike Leigh—“Peterloo.” The movie is a methodical reenactment that, with quiet patience and attention to detail sends a loud message of righteous indignation. It is catnip for history buffs and costume dramedy lovers. Those looking for loud action will have to wait until the tail end of the generous 150 minute plus runtime.
When “Peterloo” opens we follow the shell-shocked Joseph from the battlefields of the Duke of Wellington to the quiet countryside in Manchester. Joseph’s parents, Joshua, and Nellie (Pearce Quigley and Maxine Peake) await anxiously, their bulging family hungry and expectant. The family, which includes two other children and a daughter-in-law, all toil laboriously at a local cotton mill. They struggle to make ends meet. Joseph himself becomes the symbol for the movie’s motivations and ambitions. He has a quiet, unassuming manner, but important things await him.
“Peterloo” is much like Joseph in that it is staid and precise, almost searching and shy. But, like this not-principal but important character, the film glides along, determined and somewhat overconfident in where it is going. Leigh is a writer and director known for his exacting and meticulous recreation of the British ennui outside the capital. He also knows his destination precisely. In this case, as in many of his movies, it is to provoke quiet outrage for the persistent and intractable disparities that afflict his society. Though Leigh never even comes close to giving you a history or morality lesson—there are no title cards, no sweeping or grandiose statements—you know exactly where he is going with all this. The allegory to the present, the tragedy of that reality, pervades the picture. And makes it even more somber than perhaps its quiet and contemplative director may have intended.
Joseph, of course, is just a symbolic vehicle for the working class. There are players and forces beyond him and his family, that will in due course sweep them up. As history always does. There are local “agitators” including Neil Bell as Samuel Bamford, a lawyer with a knack for spotting injustice. Bamford and friends were aptly termed “Reformists,” perhaps 1819’s version of today’s bad word du jour, “socialists.” They sought, well, reform. As occurred repeatedly in pre-1945 Europe, the spoils of war were not always spread evenly to the victors. Armies were expensive. They needed clothes and food. Keeping the boot on the neck of the populace remained imperative.
In Manchester, wages were abysmal and not all men could vote. Land interests remained paramount. The owners of mills were greedy. The local clerics and magistrates ensured the enduring entrenchment. This is, of course, not an iota different from the class struggles of 2019. And it is imminently apt for Leigh to explore the culmination of these events for the 200th anniversary of these events.
In London, meanwhile, resides Henry Hunt, played by Rory Kinnear, perhaps the most recognizable among the cast at least to American audiences. Hunt is a somewhat self-involved, self-labeled savior (again, sound familiar?). He has the right ideas but his ego is grander than them. You can see, now, I hope, that it is Joseph and his family that will be crushed in the grind of this stone wheel?
“Peterloo” proceeds from that setup in a straightforward, old-fashioned way. Indeed, “Peterloo’s” style may be as antiquated as the world it purports to portray. The candle burns slowly and only on one end, the set design is voluptuous and stuffy, the costumes airy and notable. The dialogue runs in long lines, scenes seem interminable by today’s snip-snip editing standards. To some, this will undoubtedly seem grotesquely boring but Leigh achieves his intended effect. He imbues the entire exercise with a profound sense of realism that is almost impossible to fathom given his subject matter. His choice of lesser-known actors is, of course, part of the trickery. The point is to make you feel like these people are as real, that you care about their plight as much as the downtrodden you may feel sympathy for today.
A movie of this incisive style and purposeful length would not work unless the payoff made it worth it. In “Peterloo,” the payoff is worth it. Leigh knows that you know what he thinks. And he knows that, if you are in the theater, you likely sympathize. He realizes, too, that he is mostly an exercise in futility. Why would you care about some dead cotton millers 200 years ago? We seem to have bigger problems.
The only way out of his impossible conundrum is to humanize them. This requires time and effort, which is what Leigh gives in “Peterloo.” It is remarkable, actually, that he does so. The hyper-realistic effect of his method on the film is rewarding. Period dramas long ago stopped caring about their core audiences and started catering to the explosion starved. A realistic depiction of 1819 Britain had not shown its face in a while. Fans of the genre will rejoice, now, even if all others will grimace.
You likely do not need to imagine what unfolds. The trifecta of interests weaves in and around each other, in a delicate deadly dance towards a cliff. The moneyed men and their judicial cronies cling desperately to power and privilege. The up and coming, educated class of Hunt wants their place at the table. The Reformists, perhaps the only with pure intentions, are beyond their leagues. Still, it is interesting to see how it happened or to see the minor distinctions between their times and ours. Women organized back then too, but in support of the men. Religion did not seem to play as critical a role. At least other than the interfering preachers, of course. Men of “justice” doled out the injustice kind to beggars and paupers. Government interception was a thing.
Leigh does not have to spell it out: his vision of the human condition is as bleak as Dick Pope’s cinematography is bright and shiny. “Peterloo” depicts more than just a historical battle. It showcases the indelible grotesque traits of humanity with ever so slight a touch of hope. Sure, the movie may be too indulgent, and too old-fashioned to warrant any accolades or even an honorable mention. But the cliché about forgetting the past is as pervasive as the injustices Mike Leigh reenacted in this movie. So, you know, go see it, or else.
“Peterloo” is distributed by Entertainment One and hits theaters U.S.A. on April 5, 2019