Mike Leigh intentionally delayed the production and release of his film Peterloo to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the event it portrays, a massacre of peaceful protestors in Manchester by the British Army. Yet its historic status should not obscure that Peterloo is less a moment in time preserved in amber and more of an ongoing struggle. Though the period dress and dialogue are different, the conversations about forcing a democracy to respond to its neediest citizens are depressingly relevant.
Better yet, Leigh does not need to resort to rubbing our noses in the contemporary parallels. His methodical, delicate approach to depicting what led up to a watershed moment in British political history makes its own case. Leigh trusts his audience to understand the slow drip of social change and how a speech or a small act of defiance can ripple outwards. Peterloo might not be a particularly rousing political drama, but fans of other procedurals like BPM depicting the funneling of activism into progress will find the film’s patience a refreshingly honest change of pace.
Find out more in our Peterloo review below.
Peterloo announces itself as a very different historical epic from its opening shot, a look back at the battle of Waterloo depicted solely in the close-up of a confused soldier. Leigh, a writer/director notorious for his actor-first filmmaking style, immediately establishes that he’s less interested in connecting big moments in history and more fascinated by the people who make them happen. Even at the actual massacre of Peterloo, Leigh never depicts violence in wide shot. He makes sure we feel every single stabbing and impaling, particularly of the women and children present. This intimate lensing by cinematographer Dick Pope never lets the enormity of the tragedy overwhelm its intimate, personal impact.
The hard work of history does not happen in these moments, though. The difficult task of mobilizing support for a cause occurs in the ellipses of a story, and Leigh expands these under-recognized moments to intellectually engaging effect. It’s a film finely attuned to the incremental progress that mobilizes the hard-working laborers to move from being a class of itself to becoming a class for itself.
Leigh’s knack for classic British “kitchen sink drama” still exists in Peterloo, even in a time that predates widespread use of indoor plumbing. It just applies to the small conversations they have lamenting their continuing woes following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Their struggles with famine and unemployment fall on deaf ears in Parliament, which at the time had no representation solely from Manchester. And even if they were, it might not make a bit of difference given how haughtily out of touch Leigh portrays this group of ruling elites.
These conversations gradually spiral into speeches, then pamphlets and finally a demonstration that so thoroughly spooks Parliament that they order troops to slaughter the protesters. Peterloo’s deliberate pacing and structure makes the evolution of a movement feel completely organic. Great democratic advances do not happen overnight, nor do they occur without plenty of infighting and tentative maneuvering. A groundswell for representative democracy begins, well, from the ground and builds its way up.
Leigh lets us watch the seed of social change grow, although he cuts off Peterloo before we see it blossom entirely. Understandably, it’s a bit frustrating to spend 154 minutes watching a lot of speechifying and inside baseball only to stop short of seeing the end result. Leigh understands that, though, and is willing to purposefully aggravate in order to make an important point. These steps toward a more just democratic system of government are meaningful in their own right. The process matters as much as the result. And besides, Leigh bucks about every other genre convention throughout Peterloo, so why cave at the ending?
/Film rating: 7 out of 10
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