In 1815, the Napoleonic Wars ended at the Battle of Waterloo, where a coalition of British and Prussian troops, the former commanded by the Duke of Wellington, defeated the French army commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte. Waterloo marked an end to twenty years of warfare, and while the victory may have been glorious from the point of view of England’s leaders, for the common people of England it ushered in a period of famine and unemployment, the former exacerbated by the Corn Laws which kept the prices of imported grains high. These hardships, compounded by lack of political representation (suffrage, even among white men, was far from universal in England in those days), led to demands for reform.
One political demonstration from this period, which took place in 1819 in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, is remembered today primarily for the brutality with which it was suppressed. That would be the Peterloo Massacre, the name an ironic reference to the Battle of Waterloo which took place just four years earlier, and the subject of Mike Leigh’s new film Peterloo. Leigh begins and ends his film with battles and bloodshed, at Waterloo and Peterloo respectively (the latter followed by a brief coda to tie things up), but in between it’s mostly talking, resulting in an oddly paced film and one which does not highlight his strengths as a director.
Leigh begins with a promising device, embodying the fate of the ordinary Englishman in the story of a young soldier, Joseph (David Moorst), who serves at the Battle of Waterloo and then is left to find his own way home. By the time he makes it back to his family in the north of England, Joseph is suffering from PTSD and is barely able to walk or speak, his neglect signifying the callousness of England’s leaders towards the common people who make their upper-class lifestyles possible. At the other end of the spectrum, the Duke of Wellington (who was born rich) is awarded a tidy sum and command of the Northern District of England (which included Manchester) in gratitude for his services to the nation.
The contrast between the fates of these two men, presented within the first 10 minutes of Peterloo, gives you a good indication of how the rest of the film will play out. The rich get richer while the poor get starved when they’re not actually getting their heads beaten in, a course of events which is not entirely inaccurate but doesn’t profit from being retold at such length or with such a lack of subtlety. Or, for that matter, with so much talking—whatever happened to the principle that it’s more effective to show rather than tell your story, particularly in a visual medium such as film?
The strongest points of Peterloo are technical, particularly the costume design by Jacqueline Durran, production design by Suzie Davies, and art direction by Dan Taylor and Jane Brodie. Indeed, this film sometimes feels like a collection of historical re-enactment clips from a History Channel film that never got made—many scenes work fine on their own, but the whole is much less than the sum of the parts. There are some interesting acting performances, including Rory Kinnear as the political agitator Henry Hunt and Maxine Peake as Joseph’s mother Nellie, but even they can’t overcome this film’s essential lifelessness. At over two and a half hours, Peterloo will strain the patience of anyone who is not a died-in-the-wool Mike Leigh fan and/or an English history buff. | Sarah Boslaugh