On August 16, 1819, at a public square in Manchester, England known as St. Peter’s Field, upon the order of the local magistrates, with sabres drawn, a determined cavalry charged into a peaceful crowd of working-class protesters. It was a massacre. Numbers differ from report to report, but there were thought to be approximately 70,000 people in attendance, not only working men but also their wives and children. They had legally assembled to demand reform to unjust laws. Several were killed, more than 600 severely wounded. Several died later of their wounds. As an ironic contrast to the recent battle at Waterloo, the newspaper reporters who witnessed the carnage dubbed it Peterloo.
Up until the release of director Mike Leigh’s film, despite the event that is often described in Manchester as the city’s Tiananmen Square, most in other areas of England remained unaware of the details. Stateside, it’s safe to say that the average American hadn’t even heard of it. Which is presumably why director Leigh, who was brought up near Manchester’s city center with its history forever around him, felt the need to make his account of what happened meticulous and thoroughly detailed.
With a running length of a whopping 154 minutes, the charge itself and how it occurred is undeniably engrossing. You’ll feel the same kind of outrage that American audiences felt in 1970 when the cavalry attacked a peaceful Cheyenne village in Soldier Blue, also based on a real event. But before you get there, Peterloo indulges in more than two hours of heavy-loaded speech after speech, where the desperate lower-class locals gather and make their voices heard, one after another, after another, while those in power enjoying the perks of their privilege and station do what they can to suppress the “preposterous” requests for reform.
The gripes of the factory workers are certainly just. “One man, one vote!” they declare at a time when such a thing for a worker was denied. “Liberty or death,” was the rallying cry. With many starving and no other means of getting their point across, the families gather and talk. The men have their meetings. The women have theirs. The warranted gripes are heard, and heard again. Through conversations, Leigh’s script does well in explaining what the tariffs and trade restrictions of the unjust Corn Laws meant and why the legal suspension of Habeas Corpus affected the underclass without making things sound like too much of a lecture, but the points needed to be made are made in the first hour, and yet the workers keep gathering and they keep talking.
As a continual counterpoint to the speeches of the lower-class, the film cuts to the magistrates in power who shape and enforce the often unjust laws. Many locals are flogged or mercilessly banished to Australia for minor offenses, torn from their families. One man steals a coat and is ordered to be hanged. And when news of the Manchester area workers talking of wanting reform and be given fair representation in Parliament with the ability to vote, the authorities, never wanting to be one to give up their power, declare the meetings to be a sickness. “A rampant threat of insurrection,” they declare, adding, “They speak not of reform but of destruction.” Again, as with the desperate position of the unrepresented workers, the perspective of the authorities is already made – “We are their moral superiors!” – but the film, determined to cover all the facts, continues with more.
Much of Dick Pope’s cinematography is wonderfully composed, particularly the half-lit interior scenes, often resembling a style of framed oils of the day. It’s not attractive in the way that Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon made a colorful Gainsborough come to life, but with its light from window shadings, particularly when seeing the magistrates dressed in black, Peterloo can often look like a series of enactments from a Dutch master.
But with a large ensemble of faces and names that most will have difficulty in remembering – there’s no central figure to follow – director Leigh’s customary style of presenting nuanced modern-day characters is here substituted for strict adherence to recorded historical detail. There’s no emotionally charged dramatic embellishment to keep an audience engaged. While the speeches may contain passion, the film’s dry account of events and what lead to the massacre doesn’t. It may have been a torturous and frustrating long, slow walk to get to where those dissenting voices could be heard, but, unfortunately, so is the film.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 154 Minutes