The Peterloo Massacre is a defining moment in British history and one which shaped irrevocably the future of the working class, print journalism, and government.
But Mike Leigh’s Peterloo movie falls short of the reverence the Peterloo massacre deserves.
Peterloo has the extraordinarily long runtime of two hours and 34 minutes. Each minute can be felt passing, and painstakingly so.
Sitting through Peterloo is akin to wandering down Southbank, waiting, and waiting, and waiting, for a contortionist or magician to begin their act while they drum up a crowd only for the spectacle to last a few minutes.
Peterloo attempts to lay the groundwork for the momentous massacre through the tales of a single family, whose son returns from France with what we would now diagnose as PTSD.
The actors in the family give their roles every ounce of power – and Maxine Peake shines as the pessimistic (some might say realist) Nellie, with her more optimistic husband Joshua, portrayed by a subtle but conviction-filled Pearce Quigley.
But Leigh’s patented improvisational movie-making is unable to convey the weight of these characters emotions and reduces arguments between Mancunian revolutionaries as stilted and awkward at best.
Rory Kinnear lends his talents to the real-life figure of Henry Hunt, a radical orator who was instrumental in the repeal of the corn laws.
Peterloo: Mike Leigh’s film based on the Peterloo Massacre is out in cinemas November 2
The most interesting relationship in the movie is between Hunt and Neil Bell as Samuel Bramford, an autodidact radical who Hunt seems to tolerate, rather than empathise with.
Leigh is perhaps at his best work when he is in intimate moments of character study. But against the backdrop of the 1800s, these quiet moments are lost to the audience’s desire to see, feel, and hear the revolution.
There is an added level of irony in watching a group of white men hold up banners for universal suffrage when they were arguing simply for male suffrage. It would take over 100 years for all men to be given the right to vote, and another decade for all women to be given the same right.
Peterloo remains unaware of this irony, spending most of its time watching men address each other in an endless series of Mr Hobhouse, Mr Gout, Mr Cobb, ad nauseam, without ever giving the audience enough substance to latch onto with these men.
Peterloo: Maxine Peake plays Nellie, a realist whose husband and son are pro-male suffrage radicals
The rest of the time, men are yelling at each other, or at a crowded room, or at themselves, and the nuance of what they were fighting for is lost.
For all its melodrama, Poldark does a better job at making you empathise with the plight of the poor in the 1800s than Peterloo, which is a shame given Peterloo’s foothold in truth.
The actors themselves mostly shine, given their limited capacity as symbols – working-class women, radical men, elitist judges, and the plump prince regent – of what led to the massacre.
When the massacre finally reaches its apotheosis, there is a brief moment of energy – of emotion – on screen.
Peterloo: Rory Kinnear (centre) and Neil Bell (R) make the most of a fraught, complex relationship
As soldiers charge on horseback with swords drawn into a peaceful crowd of gatherers, their fear and confusion are palpable.
But all of this is undone when, in the aftermath of the massacre, two journalists helpfully explain how the name Peterloo came to be, in a hamfisted reminder to the audience that this movie is based on reality.
The story of Peterloo is relatively unknown, and one which should undoubtedly be taught and memorialised in our collective consciousness in a way only cinema can do.
With a shorter runtime, a tighter focus, and clearer characters, Peterloo could have been a triumph.
Unfortunately, Leigh’s effort turns a violent clash of class and moment of near-revolution into a plodding and forgettable film.
Peterloo is now playing in cinemas.