Writer-director Mike Leigh usually likes to make revealing intimate films. With “Peterloo” he has opted ambitiously to portray an epic event in British history, the slaughter in 1819 in Manchester, England, of protestors demanding representation. While he observes the larger picture of how the atrocity developed, he is also using his expertise to focus on individuals on both the demonstrators’ side and among the callous perpetrators determined to shut down the protest and teach those demanding rights a lesson.
The carnage took place four years after the victorious battle of Waterloo in 1815. For his role in winning, the celebrated Duke of Wellington was given 750,000 pounds, tough to swallow for the working class struggling to exist. The title “Peterloo” derives from Peter’s Field, where the demonstrators were attacked, and obviously the film’s title is a play on the battle of Waterloo. The situation is personalized by the site of a bugler who survives Waterloo and wanders in a post-traumatic haze back to Manchester, where we follow him until he is ironically caught up in the onslaught.
A massive protest rally is called to express in a peaceful manner the will of the people who are demanding representation. Women and children as well as men stream en masse into the area. The focal point is an address by Henry Hunt, played by Rory Kinnear, a renowned liberal speaker who travels there to lend his weight to the protest. Leigh builds suspense by showing how Hunt deals with the various factions involved in the demonstration, always insisting that the protest be peaceful. No weapons, he decrees. On the other side, Leigh focuses on the various characters running Manchester, a nasty lot who ultimately succeed in getting the cavalry to ride into the crowd and disperse it.
The lethal mayhem that results is depicted in great detail, as people are trampled by horses and cut down with swords in a horrible following of orders with no mercy given. The toll is at least 11 people killed and the wounded figure rises to some 400. Leigh is adept at displaying the full horror of what happens and engendering disgust at seeing peaceful people crushed by the establishment.
“Peterloo” is a mighty film that honors a long-remembered event in British history. However, it has one flaw. The ending is cheapened by looking in on royalty to show how disgustingly those who approved the killing act. Gleeful, buffoon-like behavior is a ridiculous caricature totally at odds with the realism of the rest of the film and comes across as a silly scene out of sync with Leigh’s otherwise mastery.
However, such is the overall power of “Peterloo” that the massacre is what will be most remembered from the film, as well it should be. Chalk up another important accomplishment for Mike Leigh. An Amazon release. Reviewed April 5, 2019.