Photo: Simon Mein/Amazon Studios
by Paul Attard Film Horizon Line

Peterloo | Mike Leigh

May 6, 2019

Over his 30-plus year career, Mike Leigh has incisively observed human interactions and dissected the various factors (upbringing, education, religion, etc.) that define those relations. So it’s baffling to try and understand the justification behind Peterloo, a three-hour film of people giving long speeches, with nearly no central characters to latch onto. To depict the events leading up to the Peterloo Massacre, Leigh observes the two major, opposing sides of England’s class struggle grow in size over meetings in the respective camps. Unfortunately, there’s little to care about here on an emotional level, since the film prioritizes introducing second-rate historical figures over firmly characterizing any significant personalities on either side.

Everyone presented is defined solely by the ideals they convey: the working-class insurgents never move beyond wanting more wages and less work, while the bourgeoisie sit around barking about how much they hate the poor. The ideological dichotomy Leigh introduces is so rigid that within a few seconds of someone speaking, you’ll often know exactly which topics they’ll touch on (sovereignty or liberty if they look a tad unkempt; government control if they don’t), the time it will take them to get through their proclamation (roughly ten minutes), and what the next person in line will say (the same exact thing). This is history as it probably was: largely boring and inefficient, relentless and exhausting.

Published as part of Before We Vanish | Issue 4.