Mike Leigh is one of my favorite filmmakers, in part because you never know what to expect from him. He’s given us slices of life (Life is Sweet, Secrets & Lies), character studies (Another Year, Happy-go-Lucky), a lavish period piece about Gilbert & Sullivan (Topsy-Turvy) and a breathtaking portrait of a great British painter (Mr. Turner). Peterloo is something else altogether: a historical document of events leading up to a brutal massacre of townspeople in Manchester in 1819.
Knowing that outcome in advance removes any vestige of suspense. What we get instead is a meticulous re-creation of everyday life in the early 19th century. The focal point is one working-class family that struggles to get by, in spite of wage cutbacks at the local cotton mill and a shortage of food from nearby farms. These “have-nots” are contrasted with the “haves” who regard such workers as ungrateful rabble whose rumblings about voting rights are a matter of sedition. The ruling class has never been portrayed with greater vitriol.
There is much speechifying in the revolutionary movement. The men and women who take a stand against their oppressive government and the imbalanced scales of justice are in many cases based on real-life figures from the period. They were moved to great heights of rhetoric by their deep-seated feelings…and, in a few cases, ego gratification.
Leigh spent several years researching this picture and has drawn on records of the time for authenticity. This has paid off in a film where everyone on camera looks and sounds real. There is much to admire and respect here, as one would expect from someone as deliberate and detail-oriented as Leigh. As a dramatization of history it is impeccable and well worth seeing. Its lessons about class structure resonate roundly today. But Peterloo is a difficult film to cozy up to, especially when you know the fate of the central characters. It succeeds more as a historical treatise than as a piece of entertainment.