PETERLOO gets 7.5/10 Out in the streets

Directed by Mike Leigh

Starring Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, Tim McInnerny, Marion Bailey


Mike Leigh has been more of an interior-set filmmaker, with living room dramas like Secrets and Lies and Another Year. But with what is his grandest (and likely most expensive) film, he takes his usual suburban outrage out into the communal streets of the 1810s, where he emulates his more political British contemporary, Ken Loach, for this impassioned recount of the dire economic state of Manchester after the Napoleonic Wars, the St. Peter’s Field protests for parliamentary reform, and the ensuing massacre that horrified the nation.

This is a proper ensemble piece, with more speaking roles than Avengers: Endgame. A young soldier (first seen at the end of the Battle of Waterloo) acts as a bookend character to thread through all the other characters, including his parents, brothers, sisters, their activist friends, local journalists, political speakers, magistrates, and the Prince of the UK himself, all of whom get time to voice their varying opinions on this political activism.

This obviously makes for a very talkative film, even reiterative and rambling – but that’s one of the criticisms levelled at the activists, that they are all talk and little action. Though, once action does come into play, they are thwarted by a tyrannical police force that results in 18 deaths and hundreds of injuries to innocent, unarmed protesters.

This centrepiece climax sequence is a masterclass work of filmmaking. The level of detail in the crowds is a stunner to behold and becomes no less impressive, but far more emotionally affecting and horrific once the killings begin.

All of this scale and attentiveness makes Peterloo feel like a grand summation of this moment in British history, and yet also makes it succumb to feeling at other times quite laboured. Compared to Leigh’s previous films of people arguing with each other, this film has the government and its citizens arguing at each other… but with themselves. As none of them really share screen-time, this 155-minute investment risks being as exhausting as it is riveting.

In this immense run-time, there’s no shortage of Peterloo establishing and building up this time and place in politics, through not only the outstanding production design that really places the audience within this setting but the vast scope of the community it fits in. Leigh, somewhat working outside of his comfort zone, can’t quite manage to justify every single inspiring rant here – the incautious ambition of such a film results in a flawed, yet towering piece of cinema.


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