New movies from Mike Leigh are all too rare – his last one was Mr Turner in 2014 – and I was looking forward to Peterloo more than most. The true story of the slaughter of peaceful protesters in 1819 deserves to be better known and hopefully this film will go some way to doing that.
The depiction of the attack by the troops on the men, women and children gathered at the event in Manchester is graphic and harrowing. It makes up most of the last act, though the bulk of the film concentrates on the lead up to those events. It is particularly good at putting the desperate situation of the working class in context and showing the terrible lives most of them are forced to lead. It also doesn’t shy away from highlighting how some of their leaders were at least as interested in promoting themselves as they were in helping others.
I can imagine some viewers will lose patience as there is an awful lot of talking, including a series of speeches in the first two thirds of the film. Aside from a couple of clunky moments in the script, I thought all of that worked well and I didn’t find it boring at all. The depiction of the politicians and royals doesn’t work quite so well. I’m sure they were vile but they do tip over into caricature. In particular, Tim McInnery’s Prince Regent feels like he has walked, aptly, off the set of Blackadder. Even in Leigh’s best films he has a tendency to present exaggerated characters, as in Naked or Career Girls, but once again it is only a minor distraction.
The rest of the cast are very good, headed by the always excellent Maxine Peake. She is ably supported by Tom Gill and Philip Jackson in particular.
I don’t quite rank this amongst Leigh’s finest work – Another Year remains his masterpiece – but this is a fascinating look at an important historical moment.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10