I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
On August 16, 1819, at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, England, government troops massacred peaceful protestors at a rally, downtrodden working-class people who, suffering from increasing poverty and deprivation in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and the disastrous protectionist Corn Laws, were calling for Parliamentary reform and an expansion of voting rights so that their needs would be represented in the halls of power.
Unfortunately, there is more drama and excitement in my simple, factual description of the historical background of Peterloo — which also serves as its plot — than there is in the film itself.
The legendary filmmaker Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner, Happy-Go-Lucky), who wrote and directed this would-be epic, is as rabble-rousing offscreen as he is with his work. Peterloo is clearly well-intentioned, a reminder of a past almost forgotten in mainstream British culture; this horrific moment in history is not, it seems, one that British schoolchildren learn about. And the film also feels like an admonition for us to remember that the past isn’t even past: Peterloo must surely lead any informed person to wonder whether, two hundred years later, much has changed at all, what with protectionist Brexit in the offing, which promises to bring new deprivation, and a reform movement afoot today to change the UK’s outmoded first-past-the-post voting system, which would make the UK government more accountable to the citizenry in a way that it is not now.
But good intentions do not a compelling narrative make. I couldn’t possibly be a more sympathetic, more gung-ho-progressive audience for Peterloo, but this isn’t a story: it’s a series of costume-drama cosplay reenactments, dramatized reconstructions of speeches and informal debates among campaigners and — worst of all — stilted infodumps intended to educate the viewer about this Very Important Historical Event. This is a two-and-a-half-hour slog through a terribly sad Regency Renaissance festival that every once in a while stops for long, static scenes — behold, a tableaux of thespians! — in which we shall hear about the Corn Laws, or why a Famous Orator was so beloved by the people.
There are no real characters here, just people who pop up from time to time to deliver whatever lesson on history or politics needs to be delivered at the moment. It might be John-Paul Hurley as *checks IMDb* John Thacker Saxton, who *Googles* had founded a radical newspaper; he gives warm speeches about the ordinary people being “on the brink of liberty,” but for a movie intended to be educational, we learn almost nothing about him — I cannot recall if his name is actually ever mentioned — or what his newspaper was publishing that was seen by the powers that be as so dangerous. It might be Rory Kinnear (Spectre, Man Up) as Henry Hunt, that beloved orator and radical activist, whose presence, bizarrely, the film seems to indulge only begrudgingly, because historical accuracy demands it, and not because it has any genuine interest in him or his ideas. It might be Maxine Peake (Funny Cow) as the presumably fictional Nellie, a poor but hardworking mother and grandmother, who serves primarily as a foil to the optimism of the menfolk that, you know, they are on the brink of liberty and stuff. (The opinions and aspirations of women are mostly ignored here, though Saxton’s wife, Susannah [Victoria Moseley], who heads up a sort of women’s auxiliary campaign to her husband’s work, gets a little sidebar.) The closest we get to an actual character with an actual story arc, slim as it is, is in Joseph (David Moorst), Nellie’s son, a traumatized veteran of the Napoleonic Wars who recovers from his wartime experience only to be unable to find work in the depressed economy.
Often, though, new faces just pop up without explanation. Who is this new guy orating? Who is this new guy who volunteers to be a provocateur among the reformers of Manchester, trying to prod them into violence? I can’t quite say the film builds to the Peterloo massacre — so dubbed by journalists at the time as an ironic counterpoint to the Battle of Waterloo, which still loomed large in the public consciousness — because there’s little sense of mounting intensity or increasing tension here. We should be dreading that inevitable moment. Instead, we’re hoping to hurry it up, if only so the film will finally be over. Peterloo’s clear destiny is for it to be shown in schools as a special treat, a change of pace from the typical teacher’s lecture. And even those kids are going to find this dull and dry as dirt.