Admittedly, Mike Leigh’s latest historical epic is a bit of a tough sell. A nearly three-hour dissection of an oft-forgotten moment in Great Britain’s political history told through a series of lengthy, slow-paced economic discussions and inspirational monologues doesn’t exactly fill multiplexes. Nevertheless, Peterloo offers a poignant, heartrending payoff to any viewers willing to extend to it their patience and attention. This is the story of revolution, of the downtrodden banding together to claim equality, and it is a social realism treatise that is, unfortunately, just as pressing today as it would have been two centuries ago.
On 16 August 1819, a peaceful rally for parliamentary reform and fair representation quickly turned to tragedy when government militias decided to stamp out the demonstration with brutal violence, killing unarmed protesters in St Peter’s Fields. Leigh’s film is interested in the savagery of the massacre, but also of the historical course of events that led to the coordination of the now infamous harmless protest.
Make no bones about it, Peterloo is a long movie. Making the most of his vast ensemble, Leigh attempts to display a spacious stable of distinctive characters, each with their own idiosyncratic point of view. Even on such a grand scale, this is an intimate case study in constitutional humanity. All of the work put into extensive background can feel exhausting, but once we get to the overwhelming titular climax, it becomes increasingly apparent just how necessary that level of context was to the film’s emotional heft. There’s a 90-minute version of this story to be told, but it wouldn’t go beyond the tale’s most fundamental mechanics. Leigh ensures, in painstaking detail and arguably to a fault, that we know precisely what these men and women are fighting for. We are invested in the culmination of their struggle, and we become attached to their fleeting sense of liberty.
Peterloo leads with its elaborate period design, working wonders in recreating early 19th century everyday life. But it isn’t all horse-drawn carriages and trumped up dressing gowns. Leigh goes to great lengths to establish the harsh severity of the class divide of the time. Time and time again, we are thrust into the swift contrast between the money-hungry politicians and the toiling working class. Right from the start, the horrors of war from the perspective on the battlefield are juxtaposed by the casual tone of the aristocrats who are orchestrating the conflict from the comfort of London. Still, Peterloo doesn’t live in a simplistic world of black and white. The film is even critical of its heroes, as with the stirring yet pompous as Henry “Orator” Hunt (Rory Kinnear).Peterloo is not an entirely successful film. There’s a reason Amazon Studios all but abandoned their initial awards push, as the final result doesn’t quite foster the charm and gravitas it believes itself to employ. Still, this is a jarring reminder that democracy was and continues to be a hard fought battle. There’s a real wave of anger flowing through this film’s veins, and yet Leigh is able to channel it into a package that’s both cohesive and accessible. It is truly the director’s finest work in years.