Peterloo – Review

Worth seeing: as an earnest and emotive snapshot of the early 19th Century stand-off between workers and the elite
Director:Mike Leigh
Featuring:Maxine Peake, Neil Bell, Philip Jackson, Rory Kinnear, Tom Gill, Al Weaver, Alastair Mackenzie, Danny Kirrane, David Moorst, Harry Hepple, Ian Mercer, Jeff Rawle, John-Paul Hurley, Johnny Byrom, Karl Johnson, Kenneth Hadley, Lizzie Frain, Lizzy McInnerny, Marion Bailey, Martin Savage, Nico Mirallegro, Patrick Kennedy, Pearce Quigley, Philip Jackson, Philip Whitchurch, Rachel Finnegan, Robert Wilfort, Roger Sloman, Sam Troughton, Tim McInnerny, Tom Edward-Kane, Tom Meredith, Victor McGuire, Victoria Moseley, Vincent Franklin
Length:154 minutes
Released:2nd November 2018


It’s 1815 and the English army has just defeated Napoleon’s France at Waterloo. Rather than honour the foot-soldiers – many of whom gave their lives for this victory – Parliament has announced a huge financial reward for the Duke of Wellington, a sign perhaps that those in power are more inclined to help their fellow elite than the man on the street.

That’s certainly the feeling among the working classes – especially outside London; a campaign for parliamentary reform is gathering pace in Manchester, with reformers planning a major rally in St Peter’s Field, to call for the vote for everyone and an end to the corn laws to alleviate their poverty and hunger.

They invite  a well-known agitator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) to come up to Manchester to address the rally. He’s a prim and proper member of the elite himself, but he has the ear of the common man and the politicians fear his influence.

As about a hundred thousand people gather to hear him speak, under pressure from the Home Secretary in London and local business owners, angry that their staff have skipped work to attend the demonstration, magistrates – watching proceedings from a nearby building – agree to send in police and cavalry to disperse them.

Seeing the horsemen storm the square, the campaigners – including women and children – start to panic, but penned in by buildings on all side, they can’t easily get away and the sword-wielding soldiers take no prisoners as they try to restore order.


Most people interested in this film will already know about what history describes as the Peterloo Massacre, when the authorities sent in the cavalry to disperse a huge crowd of campaigners calling for the vote.

Few people in western democracies would disagree that this was a fight with right on its side – and the irony that people calling for the vote were killed while calling for the vote will not be lost.

But while the arguments at its core are beyond reproach, despite bursting with passion and anger in equal measure, as a piece of film-making, Mike Leigh has failed to deliver much drama – and until the final fifteen minutes, there’s very little spectacle either.

As expected, with his period pieces, Leigh has perfectly conjured up a period of yesterday – from the costumes and locations to the relationships and the language.

But – as one of the key characters, Maxine Peake’s Nellie, remarks, when everyone else around her is pontificating, it’s all talk and no action – which could similarly describe the film, until the closing moments; there’s the prime minister addressing to MPs, there are reformers addressing working people, there are reformers addressing reformers, politicians address soldiers, the king addressing politicians, reformers arguing with reformers – talk, talk, talk.

The dialogue is all tightly written and well delivered – Neil Bell’s Samuel Bamford is a particularly enjoyable screen presence – although watching different characters stand up and take turns to say the same thing in slightly different language, again and again and again becomes a little tired, some two hours in – especially when you’ve gone to see a film about a massacre.

There are interesting moments – insights gained into the rivalries within the reformer movement, such as the supercilious Henry Hunt not seeming less interested in the people he’s addressing in Manchester than in furthering his own reputation – and some of the reasoning behind the desire of the elite to suppress a French-style revolution.

But not knowing much detail about this historic tragedy, I might have assumed that the deaths resulted from some of the one hundred thousand demonstrators being accidentally trampled under the hooves of the cavalry, so it came as a surprise to see soldiers mindlessly swinging their swords and purposefully plunging them into the chests of peaceful protesters. But why?

You can understand that the elite wanted to clear the square and break up a rally that undermined their authority. You can also understand how in the panic and confusion of thousands of people trying to flee an enclosed square, while being chased by horses, that there could be casualties; in the circumstances, the estimated 15-18 dead out of about one hundred thousand in attendance would not seem an unlikely amount. But the brutal and intentional slaying of innocent people – including women and children – seems so unexpected, so abhorrent, so far from reality that it feels more like caricature than history. And with a tragedy on that scale, it would suggest that the deaths were down – not to the abuse of power by the authorities – but the abuse of power by a handful of soldiers, perhaps even some with grudges.

Mike Leigh is best known for his intimate story-telling but this is more of a broad-canvas polemic. There’s little effort to see the story unfold through the eyes of a single protagonist – the one character that we see in the first and last scene actually does very little in between. And much of the characterisation is childishly simplistic – all the elite scowl and turn up their noses at the thought of giving up any of their undeserved privilege, while the workers are generally loving and smiling folk, full of hope and optimism. There is, at least, a plenty of hatred on each side – something which, to this day, sums up the political rhetoric we see on social media – whether it’s left/right, leave/remain or even Trump/Democrat.

Peterloo – an amalgam of St Peter’s Field and the battle of Waterloo that preceded it – is a powerful period piece without a satisfactory drama at its core. It’s an earnest and bold film about the build-up to an event which ultimately is seen as having pushed forward democracy in England. But while much of the dialogue – and monologues – are mellifluous – to the point that many in the audiences admit that even if they can hear it, they don’t understand it – there’s just too much talk and not enough action – and without explanation or indeed any examination of the consequences for those involved, the action itself seemed so unlikely and melodramatic as to leave you wondering whether this was indeed the intention of the magistrates who sent in the cavalry – or indeed the commanders of the cavalry.