Monday 12 November 2018

Film: 'Peterloo'

There was a time when I eagerly looked forward to a Mike Leigh film, but this was way back in the era of 'High Hopes' and 'Life is Sweet' (1988, 1990 respectively). Latterly he's largely eschewed the small-scale domestic comedy-dramas he used to do so well, and turned to grimmer subjects ('Vera Drake') or those with a serious undertow ('Secrets and Lies'). I suppose 'Topsy-Turvy' and 'Mister Turner' were okay - just - though his only more recent film which I really enthused about was his 'Happy-Go-Lucky' of 2008. Now with this latest, and his biggest in scale to date, he's on a mission to give us a history lesson and, boy, it shows!
From what I've picked up he was (justifiably) disgruntled to find that what become known as 'The Peterloo Massacre' in Manchester 1819, has been virtually expunged from the school history curriculum, he being especially sore about it as his school was literally within yards of the site where it occurred. It involved a crowd of some 60,000 people, gathered to demand Parliamentary representation, being charged at by a sword-armed cavalry contingent which mowed them down, sending them fleeing in all directions, some being trapped. Casualties are disputed - fatalities being at least fifteen with several hundreds more being wounded, many grievously, victims including women and children. Taking place on St Peter's Field in that then growing cotton-industry metropolis in northern England (with as yet no one to represent it in Parliament), the event acquired the name as it did, alluding to the Battle of Waterloo of four years previously. Of course, it hardly needs pointing out that the number of casualties don't begin to compare with the momentous military event which finally defeated Napoleon, though that's not to belittle those who actually were killed and injured in Manchester. 

Peterloo was covered in my own history lessons (of 60 years ago!) though it wasn't examined in any depth. However, my recollection is that it was more then merely mentioned. If that has changed then it's a disservice to British history and Leigh has every right to feel aggrieved.

Having said all that we have here an epic-length film (actually 20 minutes longer than Sergei Bondarchuk's 1970 admirable, star-laden, true epic of 'Waterloo' - if my comparison is not too fatuous!) 

I found 'Peterloo' quickly got preachy and stodgy, with hardly any moment at all of anything remotely smile-raising. Leigh's earnestness in feeling that the tale needs to be told (and I can't think of any other film which has covered the events) overwhelms the slow build-up to the climactic occurrence such that I found myself nodding off at least twice.  But when it does finally come, the brutal put-down of the public gathering is expertly done and, indeed, quite distressing - and it goes on for rather longer than we might have come to expect.

The politics leading up to the 'massacre' is portrayed rather aridly - the ruling classes, including the future George IV (who was to ascend to the throne the following year) feeling that the demonstration needed to be put down forcefully for fear of it sparking the equivalent of the French Revolution which had begun 30 years before.

The only cast members whose names I was familiar with were Rory Kinnear. who plays a charismatic speaker whose presence in Manchester drew the welcoming crowd, and Maxine Peake - but I think the entire cast was struggling with a script which wasn't particularly inspiring.

It's clear that Mike Leigh feels a passion about the subject matter - and he has every right to do so. But in the final analysis I do think he hasn't manage to transfer that fervour to the screen. Other than the 'massacre' itself, I found it all a bit flat - and overlong............5.

(IMDb.................6,5 / Rott. Toms..........6.2 )


  1. I read some bad reviews of this film, much along the lines of what you are saying. Not one of Mike Leigh's best. I went to see Wildlife today. Excellent film.

    1. Tomorrow is 'Wildlife' time for me, Rachel. Despite some of its praise being qualified (though not yours) the two main stars are two of my current top favourites, so that alone is sure carry it for me. But still expecting a bit more even than that.

  2. What a coincidence! I listen to "Age of Victoria" podcast. Last week was the topic of Peterloo. I had never heard of such until last week - and now there is a movie about it ! How awful it all sounded on the podcast. I suspect the movie will be too depressing for me to see.

  3. Not surprised that you hadn't heard of the historical event, Dr Spo - join the (dare I say it?) probably majority of Brits.
    The political background for the greater part of this long film is a bit of a slog, so you're more likely to find that boring rather than depressing. But the actual attack on the crowds is quite brutally conveyed, though it's by no means the most 'depressing' film I've seen this year.