By Richard Ades
If you know British writer-director Mike Leigh only through contemporary tales such as Secrets & Lies (1996) or Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), Peterloo may take you by surprise. Based on actual 1819 event, the period piece brings out a different side of the filmmaker’s personality.
This time around, rather than creating indelible characters involved in highly personal struggles, Leigh delivers a panoramic history lesson stocked with multitudes of conniving bureaucrats and idealistic commoners. The result is an epic film that, for most of its running time, is far less involving than the aforementioned earlier works.
That is, unless you are as committed to the subject as Leigh apparently is. The title refers to a military attack that disrupted a peaceful pro-democracy rally in his hometown of Manchester, leaving several dead and many others wounded.
Leigh’s depiction of the attack itself is painfully effective, but the road he takes to the tragedy is long, slow and meandering.
The movie begins at the end of the Battle of Waterloo, when a British bugler named Joseph (David Moorst) is stumbling around a field filled with fallen comrades. Another early scene takes place in the office of the British home secretary, where Gen. Byng (Alastair Mackenzie) is being assigned to deal with suspected seditious activity in northern England. Both scenes help to set the stage for what’s to follow.
In between them, however, is a detour to the halls of Parliament, where a more illustrious general, the Duke of Wellington, is being awarded a large sum of money for defeating Napoleon at Waterloo. Since Wellington actually plays no role in the film, we can only surmise that this scene is meant to explain Byng’s obvious dissatisfaction with his new assignment. In any case, it’s clear that he has little interest in keeping order in northern England, which may be a contributing factor to the coming disaster.
Leigh spends the bulk of the film spelling out the conditions that created the “seditious” feelings that Byng has been assigned to quell. The shell-shocked Joseph returns to his native Manchester to find wages falling and jobs nonexistent due to a mixture of industrial developments and governmental policies. The residents are keenly aware that they have no representative in Parliament and therefore can expect no help from London. In a series of public meetings, they discuss strategies for seeking redress.
At the same time, those in power seek ways to squash what they see as the beginnings of a dangerous rebellion. Having witnessed the bloody chaos that revolution created across the channel in France, everyone from local magistrates to the prime minister is determined to keep order at all costs.
This volatile situation could have made for a fascinating historical tale if Leigh had taken a less preachy approach. For starters, he could have had his characters spend less time preaching, as those pushing for democracy are constantly giving speeches at each other. Though their oratory is as powerful as their cause is just, the film begins to feel like an endless political campaign.
The sheer size of the cast gives few characters a chance to stand out. One who eventually does is Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), a London-based radical who’s given a hero’s welcome when he arrives in Manchester to headline a huge pro-democracy rally. However, the film suggests that the ultimate heroes are the handful of journalists who cover the event. If it were not for them, the world might never have known how horribly wrong it all went—or why.
Despite the film’s shortcomings, Leigh likewise deserves credit for carrying on the noble task of reporting a historic injustice.
Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)
Columbus showings: Peterloo (rated PG-13) opens April 19 at the Drexel Theatre and AMC Lennox Town Center 24.