by Matt Weiner
It should be a match made in heaven: British director Mike Leigh channeling an uprising that pitted reactionary government leaders against a working-class population with radical demands for reform.
And for a historical drama that revolves around grain tariffs as a pretty important plot point, Leigh succeeds on one key front: Peterloo abounds with righteous indignation, from start to finish. This comes at the cost of Leigh’s usual nuanced character sketches, though.
The radical reformers, journalists and magistrates inhabiting 1819 Manchester still benefit from Leigh’s verbal fireworks. On one side, there are the aristocrats and rulers living in real fear that even the British triumph at Waterloo might not be enough to quell the spirit of the French Revolution. And then there is the unruly mob: disparate factory workers, reformers and women’s groups seeking a number of Parliamentary reforms and representation.
Agitators are literally read the Riot Act. Harrumphs and harangues come in equal measure. There’s even an impassioned debate about the merits of centrism vs. proto-Antifa at political rallies. Peterloo isn’t wanting for passion, but where the whole thing falls short isn’t that it’s a polemic—Leigh is still a formidable talent when it comes to making a period piece feel relevant, even urgent.
Which makes it all the more frustrating to see the film so weighed down by its singular, bluntly fired message that much of the cast doesn’t get a chance to inhabit their roles as much as they mostly bluster through them. Real-life figures Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) and Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell) are among the more memorable orators, but it is Karl Johnson who looks like he’s having the most fun as the cruelly indifferent Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary.
The cast of characters to keep straight is large but they’re drawn in absurdly broad strokes so you can easily track who’s under the boot and who’s wearing it. For all the impassioned speeches, it’s ironic that Peterloo winds up feeling far less humane than Leigh’s other historical masterpieces, especially 2014’s Mr. Turner. (That film owes much to Timothy Spahl’s tour de force lead, but Leigh’s generous script also balanced grace with uncompromising characters in a way that’s sorely missed in Peterloo.)
Long-time Leigh cinematographer Dick Pope comes back along for the ride, but his presence is also missed for much of the 150-minute runtime. I assume the working-class Manchester milieus are sufficiently gritty, but it doesn’t really matter. Most of the (copious) meeting scenes feel as perfunctory as the characters themselves.
Thankfully, the film at least delivers on the rage that has been set to a nonstop boil for so long. Leigh captures the confusion and senselessness of the tragedy. It’s just a shame that the massacre itself is the only thing in the film that ever really takes on any dimension.