Mike Leigh’s new movie opens at the Battle of Waterloo, concludes with the 1819 massacre known as Peterloo, and in between are 150 minutes, so before you take your seat, make sure you use the loo.
Peterloo is Leigh’s revisiting of a labor/voting rights protest in Manchester that ended with peaceful workers being attacked by ruthless and panicked authorities. It’s a movie touching on labor issues that some may find a bit labored, but for the patient viewer there are insights — Leigh is giving us a history lesson that makes some pointed nods toward the current Brexit debate.
Debate itself is one of the subjects here — the movie is so heavily weighted in favor of formal political rhetoric that it’s surely an intentional choice on the part of Leigh, and also a departure, since he’s known for the character development he achieves in intense collaboration with his cast.
Here, he gives us more arm’s-length portraits of working people in Manchester — folks displaced by technology (weavers are giving way to the mechanical loom), pushed to the edge of starvation by trade polices that affect grain prices.
Idled men sit at home and debate economics, while the women (as Leigh slyly notes) cook and mend and sew and work and clean and sell food scraps at the market to keep the family afloat. In the living room, though, the opinions of the wives go unsolicited, and talk of extending the vote to all male citizens excludes mention of women.
The men, to be sure, have legitimate grievances — grievances ignored or misunderstood by the foppish (Tim McInnerny is the powder-faced prince Regent) and insular London elite, who respond by sending an army officer to prevent a “socialist” insurrection up North, a region the man knows nothing about and cares about even less (Leigh notes that few of the those deciding the fate of the people in Manchester have even been there).
As the workers begin to take the first crude steps toward organizing, Peterloo becomes a study in the way the personal can gum up the political. One telling scene finds three men of varying degrees of radicalism addressing an audience of workers. One “centrist” attempts to restrict the debate to voting rights, another broadens that to an attack on the Church of England, still a third calls for violent revolution, and the whole thing fizzles amid the chaos of cross-purposes. (The same dynamic is seen among the anti-labor magistrates and businessmen).
We also see the impact of celebrity — Manchester organizers plan a big rally and invite the celebrated orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), an aristocrat with labor sympathies, to keynote the event. It’s at the gathering that drunken landowning “yeomanry” ride into the crowd with sabers, striking down men and women, and young and old, leading to intervention by legitimate military men that only makes the situation worse.
These scenes of sweeping physical movement are not Leigh’s strength. He remains stubbornly fixed to a tight, boxy aspect ratio that give his compositions a cramped look — Peterloo looks like a panned and scanned version of a much more visually elaborate film.
On the other hand, the blinkered perspective brings can’t-miss-it attention to Leigh’s concluding image — a shell-shocked veteran of the war in the melee, a man who served his country and is ill-served by it.
Peterloo. Directed by Mike Leigh. With Maxine Peake, Rory Kinnear, Tim McInnerny. Distributed by Amazon Studios.
Running time: 2 hours, 33 mins.
Parents’ guide: PG-13 (violence)