Veteran British Filmmaker the 7 time Academy Award Nominee Mike Leigh’s latest film takes a look back at a disgraceful part of English history that most people are totally unaware of. This epic length drama is from one of the most lauded auteurs in indie cinema whose work however never really enjoys mush commercial success,. Peterloo probably won’t change that perspective either.
The story is set in 1819 just 4 years after the Napoleonic Wars have ended and show the extremes of the British Prime Minister (Robert Wilfort) showering the victorious Duke of Wellington with millions at the same time we see one of the poor bugler soldiers (David Moorst) walking all the way back to his family’s crowded tiny home outside Manchester. The war had cost the country a lot in both manpower and money, and to redeem some of the latter, wages were cut from the working classes already living on the poverty line.
The North of England was one of the worst hit areas and what made it worse for the suffering millworkers there was that they had absolutely no representation in Parliament. Leigh shows them in their own habitat with barely enough to eat even though everyone in the family has some sort of job in cotton mills. He also shows some of them dragged in front of a Magistrate in Court where stealing an overcoat can get you hanged.
However the normally subdued and repressed workforce are slowly being treated to some fiery oratory from some of the more articulate local man that is encouraging them to finally stand up for some basic rights. As the movement gathers momentum they plan to invite a very famous speaker and agitator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) from London to address their biggest rally to date.
Hunt seems to be more concerned with his own well-being and future than that of the workers but nevertheless come the big day he is happy enough to be driven in a carraige trumplanlty into the crowds on St Peters Square that are estimated to number some 60,000.
The local Authorities squabbling over the best way to deal with the enormous crowd who have all just downed tools and walked out of the Mills and collected up their families to be there. The Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny) had already sent a battalion of infantrymen to the area, and in the ensuing panic, they are instructed to disperse the crowd.
Mounted on horseback they charge the packed crowd indiscriminately swathing a way with their sabres attacking men, women and children alike in what turns out to be a bloody carnage. Even the bugler soldier who survived the battlefields of Waterloo loses his life here so close to his home and family. The events of St Peters Square that day, with a nod to the recent war, became known as the Peterloo Massacre.
Leigh, who is known for improvising most of his films. took 2 weeks to shoot this final scene and the attention to detail is often too brutal to watch.
Up to this point the worst that this stellar cast of talented Brit actors had to contend with was just a coterie of rather verbose speakers who loved the sound of their own voices with the inflammatory rhetoric that Leigh had written them.
As period dramas go it was a very good one as Leigh and his crew have an eye for such perfect minute details that make the piece look so visually authentic. However at over 2 1/2 hours running time, it was way too long…… and way too brutal too.