Peterloo writer/director Mike Leigh claims he didn’t learn about the subject of his latest film in school. By contrast I was taught about this curious footnote in UK nineteenth century history, so coming to Peterloo, I knew all about the Corn Laws, suspension of Habeus Corpus, demands of the reformers, and the protest turned massacre which ultimately ensued (ironically dubbed “Peterloo” in the press, because the slaughter took place on St Peter’s Field in Manchester, and the Battle of Waterloo had occurred four years previously). However, prior knowledge of the subject is not required. Peterloo is an engrossing watch either way.
Leigh stages his story on a broad canvas, following the fortunes of one particular working class family (including cast members Maxine Peak, David Moorst, Pearce Quigley and Tom Meredith), as well as the stories of those directly involved, including orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson), Lord Liverpool (Robert Wilfort), General Sir John Byng (Alaistair Mackenzie), various other local magistrates, reformers and so forth. The film is given to scenes featuring lengthy political debates from both sides, depicting brave idealism on the one hand and entrenched corruption on the other. The build-up arguably takes too long, but the catastrophic finale, when it finally arrives, is appropriately hard hitting.
Performances are all good. I found Kinnear particularly compelling in his combination of political zeal and vanity, and I liked the way Maxine Peak’s wise character explicitly states the problem at the heart of their protest, namely that reform can only come slowly. History of course proved her correct, as every demand but one of the reformers (and the Chartist movement that came in the decades that followed) are now enshrined in UK law, but it took most of the nineteenth and part of the twentieth century to get there.
In short, Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is a solid, well-constructed, very fine piece of work.