Wars tend to keep going, long after our soldiers have come home…
Writer/Director Mike Leigh returns with Peterloo; an undeniably fascinating piece of bloody history that is compelling to watch but tries too hard to play like a Shakespearean tragedy rather than a straight story which just leads it all to feel a little hollow.
It’s one of the bloodiest episodes in British history, the infamous Peterloo Massacre of 1819, where government-backed cavalry charged into a peaceful crowd of 80,000 that gathered in Manchester, England to demand democratic reform.
While the simplicity of it all is kind of genius, Peterloo tells it’s tale in what is seemingly a series of monologues and speeches without any kind of narrative structure or characters to focus on as it builds to the events of the massacre.
It’s a gorgeously staged film as Mike Leigh along with long time collaborator cinematographer Dick Pope craft each frame with meticulous detail and care. It feels true to the desperation of the period juxtaposed with stunning shots of the English countryside to truly give us a sense of both the opulence of the wealthy and the desperation of the under classes. Leigh’s period pieces can get a little problematic at times as he tries to play it all a little too classically as it all felt like a collection of soliloquies about the working class and the aristocracy who just think that they are the scum of the earth but he allows us to get invested in the historical event that we are building up to rather than any specific characters that we are meant to follow in the wake of all that.
The film has very few recognizable faces which actually works in its benefit. Had this film had any legitimate star power or any real thick character parts it would have distracted from the movie that Leigh obviously wanted to make. When you combine Leigh’s striking visual style with the in your face immediacy of the moment, that’s where we get something genuinely special. This film happens around kitchen tables and in pubs as we feel the suffering of the class of people who are fighting and organizing to improve their lives and it’s paralled opposite those in the halls of power who simply want to keep getting richer on the backs of those people who have built the very nation they live in.
Leigh really hammers home the genuine tragedy and human cruelty here that plays a little more currently then I think any of us would actually care to admit. He makes us feel the inherent cruelty of those in power and the angry desperation of those simply looking for a slightly better way of life.
Peterloo ultimately reminds us of the lesson that we sadly need to keep learning as a society. Power can and will corrupt those who walk the halls of power and it’s up to the people to occasionally throw a little peaceful insurrection into the mix to keep everyone in check and make sure it doesn’t escalate any rampant abuses of power. It’s structurally kind of brilliant, but felt like it needed some emotional resonance other then the facts at hand to really hit home.