Review: 'Peterloo' Is A Rich, Bloody Tapestry, Though You May Lose The Thread The writer/director's latest film, about the British government's deadly assault on protesters in 1819, instills a growing sense of dread, but divides our attention among too many characters.
NPR logo In The Rich But Scattered 'Peterloo,' Mike Leigh Presents Scenes From A Massacre

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Movie Reviews

In The Rich But Scattered 'Peterloo,' Mike Leigh Presents Scenes From A Massacre

Peterloo tells the story of the British government's massacre of protesters in 1819. Simon Mein/Amazon Studios hide caption

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Simon Mein/Amazon Studios

Peterloo tells the story of the British government's massacre of protesters in 1819.

Simon Mein/Amazon Studios

Imagine a political conflagration that pits the impoverished against the elite. A working-class crowd assembles in a town square, calling for higher wages and access to the voting booth. Local authorities, terrified of an insurrection, move to quell the crowd by calling in armed forces. The scene turns violent, leaving about a dozen dead and hundreds injured.

That was 200 years ago, in Manchester, England. It's one of the formative events of the modern British government, and it's now a movie. Peterloo, the latest from British writer-director Mike Leigh, tells the story of how the massacre unfolded, and it's yet another well-acted and brilliantly staged addition to the filmmaker's oeuvre, which has always sought to understand Britain, then and now.

That name — Peterloo — evokes the Battle of Waterloo, which took place four years earlier. Of course that scene was also violent and deadly, but the name "Waterloo" has become synonymous with Napoleon's demise. Likewise, if you walk into this film knowing how often, in popular imagination, the name "Peterloo" is followed by the word "Massacre," a sense of dread will grip you from the opening moments, and grow steadily stronger and deeper as the movie proceeds. Every decision feels like it carries extra weight, like it will matter that much more, because we know the ending, and the only question that remains is each character's fate. Who lives? Who dies?

One character, a military bugler traumatized at Waterloo, finds himself at the center of the Massacre, once again surrounded by a scene of chaos, bodies flying around him, death ever-present, growing increasingly close. It's an image that will recall, for American audiences, the experiences of Vietnam War veterans, who fought for democracy abroad only to find their own country riven by conflict upon their return. "I nearly gave my life for this country," they may say. "And for what?"

I wish that soldier were the focus of the film. In fact, I wish any one person were the focus of the film. Deep characterization is Leigh's strength: Think of how well we come to know Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky and Vera in Vera Drake. Here, Leigh splits his time between more than a dozen characters, and the result is a broad tapestry that feels scattered and unfocused. There are the magistrate judges, an informant, a royal or two, a couple of orators, the aforementioned soldier, his family, a handful of journalists and some women in the Manchester Female Reform Society. Following the order of events, and sometimes even which character is which, can be confusing.

To be sure, Leigh excels at drawing a portrait of British life from the royal court to penniless peasants, and at showing the societal tensions that led to the massacre. Leigh focuses on patterns of speech and manners of dress to draw distinctions between the classes, but it would be easier to follow his plot with a clear and more clearly delineated central protagonist.

You can often feel the weight of British history in every line of Leigh's dialogue, as if the long arc his nation's life has led to this moment, in both his period films and those set in the present day. Here, that weight sometimes feels more like a burden, as characters speak in a manner so false and overdetermined you can hear the screenplay.

If villainy were a language, the magistrates, repeatedly shown secluded from the poorer segments of society, would speak it fluently. You can practically see steam shooting out their ears. They evolve from broad caricatures to full characters over the film's two-and-a-half hour running time, but at first glance they're merely exaggerations used to further the story. Leigh's famous filmmaking method of extended rehearsals marked by improvisation and research usually yields films that brim with humanity. Not so much here.

But in other aspects, Peterloo is so richly detailed that it begs re-watching. Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope fit the texture of Britain's countryside and towns into the frame with aplomb. The textile factory, the food market and the tavern where we see our first political meeting are vividly brought to life, and his landscapes look practically alien. And while Leigh occasionally stumbles in telling the film's larger story, individual scenes – like those between rival orators or between families in various meeting halls — are vividly brought to life. Let Mike Leigh film any small town government meeting; he elevates drama by focusing on characters' faces, their mannerisms, their shifting bodies and furling brows.

Then there is the massacre itself, a rousing ten minutes of elaborately staged carnage. Leigh shows us the specific logistics of the orators, the plight of the folks in the back who can't hear (and who end up the first attacked) in way that goes beyond mere reenactment to become stirring. How do you not feel for these people, who were so cruelly demeaned by their government before being killed by it? The whole sequence is exquisitely done, a chilling symphony – the sounds of screams and slices and horses' hooves. That moment, when long-simmering tensions finally explode into violence, justifies the two-hour wait.