Almost regardless of the actual movie itself, I find it commendable that Mike Leigh has chosen to tackle the subject of the Peterloo massacre in such a grand, publicly available way. The slaughter of peaceful protestors in Manchester who demanded a living wage and an escape from quality is arguably one of the darkest events to happen on British soil, and in these times of unnecessary austerity under the Tories it feels very apt. These facts make it all the more unfortunate that Peterloo is stagey, bloated, and not the working-class epic it had the opportunity to be.
Focusing mostly on the build-up to the massacre, Peterloo attempts to balance a huge cast of characters, beginning with a young soldier returning from the Battle of Waterloo before moving onto politicians and campaigners, as well as the soldier’s family. We are shown in meticulous detail the deals and speeches that lead up to the titular event, and frankly, this is to the film’s detriment. The film clocks in at around two and a half hours, and the vast majority of this is spent on buildup, with only ten or fifteen minutes dedicated to the horrors of the massacre. This may have been Leigh’s attempt at being accurate and respectful, but in my opinion, this backfires, putting off and boring the audience until they’re too worn out to care when they reach the actual reason they went to the cinema.
On the upside, there is Maxine Peake’s character and her family, the heart and soul of this film. While the politicians in power are essentially caricatures of evil, sneering and laughing at the misery of the poor, and the freedom fighters struggle to come off as real people with real problems as opposed to mouthpieces for the views they exhibit, Peake’s daily grind is shown in detail, as well as her reasonable reservations about the protest despite her hatred of the government. She is three-dimensional and beautifully fleshed out by Peake, who stands as a wonderful contrast to the stagier performances of the other actors, who spend half the film shouting and overacting.
Having said this, I did find some moments in the film genuinely affecting, likely because I am from and live in Lancashire, relatively close to where these events took place centuries ago. Watching people so similar to those I encounter on a daily basis be depicted in a respectful, even heroic way, was wonderful. So despite this film’s many flaws, it did still feel like a worthwhile experience, so I recommend that anyone interested in Britain’s past watch this movie, and that everyone who reads this review should at least do some form of research on this criminally underrepresented moment in history.