Mike Leigh’s take on the Peterloo Massacre is without doubt beautifully shot, but does it have anything more to offer?
As someone who loved learning about history growing up, the Peterloo Massacre is an embarrassing gap in my knowledge; beyond the name I confess I didn’t know anything about the event until watching this film. What an opportunity then, to learn something new with the help of Mike Leigh, whose new film conveniently enough charts the build-up to the massacre, and the atrocity itself at the film’s climax.
The first thing to say about Peterloo is that it’s absolutely enormous. As anyone who’s seen a Mike Leigh film can confirm, he has a knack to go all-in with his characters and by Leigh’s own count – from what he’s said in interviews at least – there are about 150 named characters.
To Leigh and the actors’ credit, every single one feels like a fleshed out person. It would have been easy to focus on a few people and let everyone else remain nameless faces in the crowd, but Leigh isn’t about that life – even Potato Thrower’s Wife has a clear motivation and she’s on screen for less than a second.
Leigh’s attention to detail against the beautiful contrasts of natural beauty and Industrial Revolution-era Manchester means it’s a visually sumptuous experience. Given the number of characters on screen throughout, there’s always the risk of the audience losing track of which person they should be following. Thankfully, even when the peaceful pro-democracy protest at St Peter’s Field descends into chaos and massacre, there’s still a clear understanding of who is doing what where, when.
Without knowing anything about the production of Peterloo, it’s a film that clearly feels like this is a passion project for Mike Leigh. The fervour with which he recounts this moment in history is front and centre in every frame, and there’s absolutely no doubting that Leigh had something to say with this film. It’s incredibly relevant to current affairs and there are definitely parallels that can easily be drawn, even though Leigh claims that this was in production before any recent change to the British or American political landscape took place.
Unfortunately, for all of the film’s character detail and visual splendour, it’s awfully slow-paced. To Leigh’s credit, his form of storytelling is showing the audience what is happening and not having every character spout exposition – an art that seems to be on the decline in recent years – but prior to the third act everything is moving at a speed that can only be described as glacial. Speeches are made over and over again, and repeated sequences of marching formations being drilled in build-up to the protest are the two most grating moments.
It’s entirely understandable for why these are included, as the crowds get bigger and support for the protest grows, but there’s little to no variety to what actually happens that it feels increasingly redundant. One character at the protest – before everything kicks off – says that he walked all the way from Wigan. To be honest, he probably got to Manchester from there quicker than we got to any substantial scene from the start of this film.
For all of its issues with pacing, Peterloo is still a very good film. While it does take a long time to get to the crux of the film, the final act is absolutely brutal and hits every intended emotional cue faultlessly. If nothing else, Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is worth it for the thrilling, horrific payoff to hours of protracted build-up. If that doesn’t sell you on it, I don’t know what will.