Cert 12A Stars 3
Director Mike Leigh takes a blunderbuss to a historical slaughter and kills the drama stone dead in this sincere and serious epic which is devoid of subtlety.
A period companion piece to his superior 2014 Oscar-nominated biopic of the 19th century artist, JMW Turner, this centres on the Peterloo massacre of Monday August 16, 1819, when 60,000 people gathered peacefully in Manchester to demand Parliamentary reform and voting rights.
And in one of the most infamous acts of violence committed by the country against its own people, families were charged down by British cavalry, leading to hundreds of injured and fifteen deaths.
It’s a long wait for the grandly staged and suitably shocking sequence, and too much of what precedes too often feels like a heavy-handed history lecture with too little thought given to entertainment.
There are multitude of people milling about and seemingly all of them get to proclaim their political position, and at bum-numbing length.
The closest we have to a lead character is Joseph, a PTSD-suffering infantryman who we follow from the battlefield of Waterloo in 1815, to his home town where he witnesses more carnage.
Joseph is a great example of how Leigh values dramatic irony over melodrama, spectacle and appealing characters.
And with barely a dark satanic mills in sight we’re told why the masses are crying ‘liberty or death’, but we never see or feel it.
However Leigh is good at showing how historical events are extraordinary messy affairs, full of competing egos, factions and agendas.
It’s suggested we don’t have to look far to find contemporary parallels of violent state oppression or blustering self-important politicians, but Leigh caricatures the upper-classes so broadly it undermines any intention to condemn them.
Peterloo is a moment of British historical significance which will benefit from being far more widely known, but also one which deserves a far more compelling account.