Peterloo is the cinematic depiction of the events that led up to the Peterloo Massacre. Possibly one of the most tragic stains on British History, it helped pull a focus to the horrific differences between the classes. In August 1819, over sixty thousand people converged at St Peter's Field in Manchester. What resulted was a bloodbath, when the peaceful protest was stopped by British forces and run down by the cavalry who hacked at the masses with their sabers. It ended with eighteen deaths and over six hundred people horrifically injured. These people, many of them women, were seeking Parliamentary changes that would extend voting rights. In time, what happened at St Peter's Field brought about significant changes for the working classes, across the UK.
Mike Leigh is one of the most applauded British filmmakers of all time. So, it seems that Amazon Studios had great faith in his ability to bring this story to life. To clarify, Amazon stumped up more funding for this production than they had ever done before. Peterloo had been a long term dream of Mike Leigh's and after receiving several Oscar nominations in the past for his work, everything seemed to be in place, for Amazon to get some payback for their huge investment. But does this film work? In a word no. In many ways it just displays Mike Leigh's complacent attitude to his audience.
The film opens up with a large-scale, fantastically shot scenes of the battle of Peterloo. But this is were the large-scale cinematic feel begins and ends. From that point onwards the whole thing looks and feels like a cheap TV production. In fact, there have been plenty of BBC period dramas that have much better production value than Peterloo.
For me, Mike Leigh gets completely bogged down in the detail. The period costume did impress but that is about it. It's more of an informative historical piece that reminded me of an old-style history production that you used to get shown at school. Not, a big-budget production made by one of the best British directors in living history.
The problem is, the film is completely lacking in narrative. Peterloo has no central characters. While trying to include every detail of the oppressed and oppressive within the story, too many people end up involved. And all are shouting their points. It becomes tiresome and yet feels extremely pedestrian.
Another downside is, that the cast is huge. But not one single person is given enough scope with the character to stand out. Plus, the dialogue is atrocious. Personally, I am a fan of Maxine Peak, but there is not a great deal that she could do with the generalized symbol of a ‘poor Northern woman' that she had to play. By the end of the film, I was completely over the comical dialogue.
I really wanted to like this film. And yet within the first twenty minutes, it became clear that this was going to be a tiresome journey. More like a poorly dramatized documentary, than a quality piece of cinema. On top of that, because Peterloo is so self indulgently long by the time we actually got to St Peter's Field, I had practically given up on the film. But don't worry, once you do finally get there, it's as bad as the rest of it. All I can say is, watch it as a history lesson and nothing else. It's no wonder the Cannes Film Festival dropped it.