Peterloo review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Peterloo is intentionally drawn out to over two hours to show the slow but inevitable rise of a people betrayed by their government. A lot of films might trim down such a progression to speed things along and keep the film under those two hours. But director Mike Leigh takes his time to showcase the grind of bitterness and assembly that soon burned into the tragic assembly of those who wanted changes. And, wow, does that climax sting so well.
The date in question for the climax is August 16, 1819. On this date, some 60,000 citizens assembled in St Peter’s Fields for demands of reform and voting rights. What started as a peaceful protest quickly spun out of control into a violent scuffle between citizens and military that left some dead and many more injured. Reform would ultimately come, as would the formation of the Manchester Guardian, but only after many more years of political unrest. And, yes, it’s quite the sight for such an epic scene of vicious guards on horses swiping with swords at the populace as they arrest the leader of the protest.
But the film will take its time getting to this point by starting at the relatable opening scene of the Battle of Waterloo just after the battle is over. We see the chaos that had unfolded and Joseph stumbles home from the war traumatized after serving in Duke of Wellington's army. The Manchester he returns to with his family is one of poverty. Economic depression is not only affecting him but everyone around their town. Meanwhile, the government does nothing. Political meetings are made and groups are formed. And when it becomes clear that nothing of value will be changed by the government itself, Joshua can pretty much fathom what must come next.
Leigh’s film comes with an operatic assembly where the period is established with elaborate costumes and settings with hundreds of people assembled. Characters speak in big and powerful monologues, mostly playing to a crowd of people to make sure all can hear their ideas across the land. This gives the film more of the appearance of a stage play and a mighty fine one at that. Great proclomations are made with astounding vigor and voice with passionate performances from the likes of David Bamber, Neil Bell, and Marion Bailey. They keep up the historical wonderment of depicting civil unrest quickly brewing to carry us through the many hours of this production before the centerpiece of the massacre takes place.
Peterloo ends on an abrupt note but still an important one. In the last few scenes after the massacre, we see the politicans snickerly and sternly state that order will be maintained and that they know what is best for the people. Cut to the people burying their dead with a prayer and an amen. Reform would come but not for many years after and several never got to see that day. It’s important to end on this note to showcase how hopeless a revolution can seem but how necessary it must be. The decay of order is most present in how the film is seen as a bit of a palindrone, where it begins with violence and ends with violence. The difference is that one was fought with soldiers and the other with unarmed citizens, an act of civil protest that would be an important for years to come in the battle of justice and order. That stirring nature is what makes Peterloo such an engrossing experience.