There is an idea that a film, any film for that matter, can be used as a historical document. From the highest grossing blockbuster of the year to the inevitable godawful Asylum mockbuster, each of these films can be seen as a historical document to some degree, regardless of the genre. They provide the historian with a glimpse of how any given era portrays themselves, others, their hopes, dreams, or anxieties. The historical potential of cinema should never be overlooked. In the same way, a novel by Dickens can provide an insight to issues of his time and draws inspiration from the world around him. Today we can, and oftentimes do, get the same effect through film. Likewise, the historical epic can tell you more about the era in which it was produced than the period it was portraying…save Braveheart (1995). All that gave us was an early warning about Gibson’s torture fetish. But the best historical epics give you a glance at both the time-period it’s portraying on screen and the one during production.
And is Peterloo one of these great historical epics?
Dropping us straight into the Battle of Waterloo the film follows Joseph (David Moorst) returning home to Manchester to his mill working family of mother Nellie (Maxine Peake), and father Joshua (Pearce Quigley). While parliament awards the Duke of Wellington three-quarters of a million pound in recognition, Joseph and the others return just as the post-Napoleonic war downturn begins; food prices rocket due to the Corn Laws and bread tax, wages are cut and returning soldiers are left jobless. Denied political representation and a vote, radical reformers such as John Knight (Philip Jackson) and Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell) begin holding meetings to present a charter of democratic demands. As the Movement starts to gain momentum so too does the government crackdown. Believing a revolution is brewing they suspend habeas corpus and seeding the movement with spies. All comes to a head during a mass meeting at St Peter’s Field in Manchester.
So is Peterloo a good movie?
Is it a bad movie then?
Also no. At its best, it’s mediocre for the most part, not picking up until the second half and even within that it still needs work.
It tries to bridge the gap between the history of the era and the events of today but in doing so it becomes a series of set pieces built around meetings were often the same point is reiterated several times by several different characters. Characters that arrive and depart at such alarming regularity it becomes a nightmare trying to keep track of them all. Joseph’s family story is relegated during the Second Act to focus more on Knight, Bamford and other characters before jumping back to them halfway through the Third Act. Meanwhile, the only thing that links all of them on screen is the constant meetings that are only there to dump exposition on the viewer. It ends up feeling like one of the educational films from the ’70s; historical dram-docs that you were forced to watch at school in the hope you would learn something. Using the actual speeches ad verbatim is good for historical accuracy but it slows the film down to a crawl and prevents you from having any empathy for the characters or their struggle. It reminds me of what Blake Snyder said about “Pope in the Pool”, that is, if you’re dumping exposition on your audience find a way to bury it through distracting them just enough, be it having some action scenes with a voice over or just having people struggling to pay for food.
As to its links to the present, it highlights the gulf between those at the top and everyone else, a common factor of human history. Populist themes run throughout, with the landed gentry’s government incredibly out of touch with the people, seeing the reformers as a threat to their way of life, and several reform leaders seem more concerned with their own status than the movement itself. Populism is portrayed neither as an inherently good or bad thing in Peterloo which is true to life and to its credit the film does a good job of showing that.
The performances are solid as a who’s who of British actor actors perform but the cast is that huge they all end up eaten by the film. Other films have shown the events from several points of view with large casts around historical events, The Longest Day (1962), The Battle of Algiers (1966), Bloody Sunday (2003) and Parkland (2013) but Peterloo never strikes a narrative pace or tone and we end up becoming lost. Don’t worry if you can’t keep up with the characters, I had to go back and check myself.
It could have done with some much-needed trimming, down by about half an hour and focusing more on the Peterloo massacre itself. During it, the film doesn’t shy away from the violence but despite watching them for near two hours we feel little connection with any of them.
The DVD comes with the standard Making of Featurettes, From Waterloo to Peterloo, and trailers.
I really wanted to enjoy Peterloo, I really did. It’s an interesting topic, an important piece of history that is too often overlooked but in trying to accommodate so much the film becomes thin and stretched. It should have stuck with Joseph and his family throughout, cut down on the exposition drops and tried to come in at about half an hour less.
Dir: Mike Leigh
Src: Mike Leigh
Cast: David Moorst, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, Philip Jackson, Neil Bell
Prd: Georgina Lowe
DOP: Dick Pope
Music: Gary Yershon
Runtime: 154 minutes
Peterloo is available on Digital, Blu-Ray and DVD now.