Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is one of those films where you keep waiting for it to get good, and waiting and waiting. It’s Mike Leigh; it’s bound to get good soon. But it never does. It’s essentially two hours of men shouting at each other, followed by a burst of violence. I sincerely wish it were otherwise, but there you are.
This is the story of the Peterloo Massacre (16 August 1819), when government-backed cavalry charged a peaceable crowd of around 60,000 who had gathered in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, to demand universal suffrage. Fifteen were killed and hundreds more injured, including women and children. The film has been getting it in the neck from some quarters ever since the project was announced. It’s just a lefty plot to show the ruling classes in a bad light, the right have said. We’re not bad people! The violence was never intentional. It all just went wrong on the day. It wasn’t a turning point in British history. It also wasn’t followed by a revolution, although, to my way of thinking that may be because seeing family members butchered by sabres in front of your eyes is quite a deterrent. Perhaps it changed history in that way. But that’s a discussion for another time. My hope was that it would be so absorbing and moving and affecting that you couldn’t wriggle out of it, any which way. Yet it’s none of those things.
It opens on the battlefield of Waterloo with Joseph (David Moorst), a young soldier wandering around in a state of shock. The film cuts to Parliament where we see the Duke of Wellington being amply rewarded for the victory, but there is nothing for Joseph when he returns to his family in Manchester. There is only worsening poverty. ‘It’ll be them Corn Laws,’ it is noted, helpfully. You keep waiting for the script to get good — this is Mike Leigh; it’s bound to get good soon — but it never does. ‘Aye, and the bread tax t’aint helpful,’ says Joseph’s mother (Maxine Peake) at one point. ‘It’s helping them rich buggers… them fat leeches down London,’ replies his father (Pearce Quigley). Meanwhile, poor Joseph, who has been traumatised, is left to wander about further, slack-jawed and lopsided, looking for work that doesn’t exist, usually in the rain. There is no proper character work at all.
The populist movement gathers pace, understandably. At that time Manchester didn’t even have an MP. This offers a large cast, mostly led by shouty men, to have shouty meetings in fields and in factories and in parlours and in pubs. Meanwhile, menacing Deputy Chief Constable Nadin (Victor McGuire) eavesdrops in plain view. (I sniggered out loud about this; why didn’t they notice the great hulking brute?) The meetings do not build to a momentum but simply repeat what has already been said while you glaze over. Ultimately, they invite Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt (Rory Kinnear) to be their star speaker at the main event. Hunt is vain, superior, a wealthy landowner. He’s by far the most interesting character and I wanted to know: why is he even a reformer? What makes him tick? We never find out.
Meanwhile, in London, the Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson) is getting worried about all the unrest, as are the local magistrates. The French Revolution is uppermost in their thoughts, as we’re reminded again and again. The local magistrates say things like ‘the rod is all they understand!’ and ‘one man one vote… preposterous!’ It was like being trapped in an episode of Poldark. I kept half-hoping Demelza would drift in with one of her kidney pies and give us all a break.
The violence, when it comes, is, in fact, marvellously mounted, and vivid and visceral, but you’re so sapped of energy by then you may not be able to do justice to the injustice in any meaningful, emotional way. Throughout, I was most preoccupied by the teeth. Bad for the poor. Less bad for the rich. But would the rich have had access to differing dentistry at that time? I can only say that neither instance prevents the cast from chewing the scenery.
David Bamber even pops up in the last few minutes just to chew the scenery, or so it seemed. This is simplistic, one-dimensional storytelling that fails to deliver the outrage it should, or the story it could have been. I sincerely wish it were otherwise, but there you are.