It’s easy to underestimate the massive economic impact that the introduction of the mechanical power loom had on the working town of Manchester and adjacent communities in early 1800’s England. Hundreds of families that relied on bare, subsistence pay for long hours of toil were supplanted by these mechanical marvels, leaving factory owners delighted and workers severely underemployed. Throwing fuel on the growing unrest was the inspiration of the worker-lead French Revolution, only recently quelled across the Channel.
It’s no wonder that the workers of England railed against their miserable pay and increasingly terrible work and living conditions. Throw in the Corn Laws that blocked all non-English food imports with the unsurprising result of raising the price of staple foods and the proletariat were ready for a fight, ready to change their beloved England. The workers collided with the gentry and the ever-class-conscious government, famously in a protest gone awry that’s become known as the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.
Auteur and director Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo tells the story of this dark day in British history. Without any flair. Without much of anything verging on an interesting and engaging movie, actually. Instead we have one-dimensional characters – all workers are noble, all gentry are callous, greedy monsters – and more speeches than any film in recent memory. With a running time of 154 minutes, it takes over two hours to finally get to the central event in the film, and by then most audience members will likely have dozed off.
The central characters are orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), shell-shocked British soldier Joseph (David Moorst) and his working class Manchester family. On the side of the landed gentry are a group of heartless men, notably Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson) and the weak but sympathetic Magistrate Norris (Martin Savage), along with an appalling, foppish Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny) who couldn’t give a whit about the plight of his subjects in far-flung Manchester.
Across the board, their performances are excellent, including the thick, often difficult to understand flat Manchester accents of the workers. It’s hard not to wish that narratively more attention had been paid to poor Joseph, however, clearly suffering from PTSD and the ideal symbol of all that was wrong with the England he’d just risked his life to defend. Instead he vanishes for long periods of the film and characters like Oliver the Spy (Stephen Wight) appear, deliver their part and disappear without further explanation or, frustratingly, comeuppance.
As with the performances, the historical settings, the costumes, all are a master class in historical period drama. There really is a lot to like about the production of Peterloo. It’s just that the narrative doesn’t offer up a smart, thoughtful story to help us understand both the motivation of the working poor and that of the government and landed classes. Instead we get “the noble worker” trope writ large: Every single worker in the film is upstanding, noble and honorable and almost every single member of the aristocracy is a heartless, greedy bastard. Life is never that black and white, and the memory of the hundreds injured and 15 killed at the Peterloo massacre deserve a smarter, more sophisticated telling of their tale.
If you are obsessed with period dramas, fascinated by 1800’s England and want to understand part of what was roiling in UK culture that eventually grew and blossomed into, among other things, Marx, Trotsky and the Russian revolution, then go see Peterloo. It’s a beautiful film. Just bring a pillow because you might just need it along the way.