Mike Leigh’s longstanding interest in the disarray of working-class life easily explains why the filmmaker was drawn to the Peterloo Massacre, an 1819 crackdown on a nascent suffrage movement in Manchester that saw British cavalry firing on striking workers demanding political reform, killing 15 and wounding hundreds, among them women and children. Peterloo even has the tenor of Leigh’s other period work, which is concerned less with the grand sweep of history than the arduous process of organization that maintains order and, in this instance, upends it. But there’s something missing here, a spark of zeal and immediacy to the depiction of anti-democratic atrocity, which in turn saps the film of its intended sense of outrage and urgency.
Leigh begins at the end of the Battle of Waterloo, contrasting images of a young Mancunian bugler, Joseph (David Moorst), who returns shaken by war to his impoverished, overtaxed family, with Parliament unanimously approving a massive financial gift to the Duke of Wellington for his victory over Napoleon Bonaparte. The halls of power are bathed in a golden chiaroscuro, which lends a sense of opulence to the legislators’ proclamations that’s far removed from the concerns of the population at large. Back in Manchester, we see the darker side of that power manifest in tribunals, framed in imposing low angles, where judges harshly castigate penniless subjects for petty crimes and pass down outlandishly draconian sentences. With no legal representation available to them, the average person is at the mercy of a system which views the lowborn as little more than worker drones to be exploited.
From there, Leigh introduces a sizable cast of characters, local and national activists alike, who are all striving for constitutional reform, and he uses this array of voices to illustrate the difficulties of large-scale organization. There are moderates urging peaceful assembly and radicals calling for armed insurrection, though others, like the garrulous but easily offended Samuel Drummond (Danny Kirrane), just want to be the center of attention and spit at those who might supersede them in prominence or charisma. Leigh efficiently establishes the overall challenges facing this slowly growing movement only to then get bogged down in this titanic clash of personalities. He reiterates the same easily summarized notion of the struggle to build a populist movement that it seems as if Peterloo is in repeat mode for 90 minutes.
By focusing so intently on the nitty-gritty of meetings where conflicting agendas compete for dominance, the film loses sight of the animating energy of the righteous, furious suffrage movement. In closed-door meetings between judges and lords, we get a redundant sense of how the political elite are incensed by the needs of the working class. In these scenes, the actors happily chew the scenery in luxurious rooms as their characters pontificate about the poor, none as entertainingly as Vincent Franklin, who, as Magistrate Rev Etlhelson, is all stentorian blasting. But the methods these men use to monitor rebellious activity are as simplistically filmed as the goings-on at the suffrage meetings. At every one of these gatherings, the menacing Deputy Chief Constable Nadin (Victor McGuire) eavesdrops in plain view, and it strains credulity how the hulking brute is so obviously placed into the background of these scenes, without anyone noticing his glowering at them.
This two-dimensionality extends to the cinematography, which has an arch beauty to it that’s miles away from Leigh’s more captivatingly lived-in period dramas. Dick Pope, who so vividly captured the smoky, grimy reality of Mr. Turner’s settings even as he channeled into his aesthetic J.M.W. Turner’s bold attitude to color, here produces a series of hermetically sealed images, tableaux vivants of noble manors and the proletariat that exude the luxuriance of a Delacroix painting but have no spontaneity to them. Leigh’s work has never before felt so distant, as Peterloo is missing that atmosphere of informality that makes even his most exactingly staged films feel so alive.
When the day of the massacre finally arrives, Peterloo completely falls apart, as the rush of the climax, which is meant to reflect how quickly things spiraled out of control, comes across as a belated attempt to inject life into this otherwise moribund drama. The massacre itself is suitably chaotic, but the tediously perfunctory nature of the film up to this point robs the sequence of its full weight of tragedy and outrage. Leigh’s period dramas frequently illuminate the minutiae of life around a person or event, but Peterloo so simply recounts the details of its subject matter that its culminating horror unsettlingly feels like little more than a cathartic inevitability.