“Peterloo” is an overly ambitious retelling of a British historical event from 1819. It was soon after the Battle at Waterloo and the War was over. British common folk thought that good times would come. But the English royalty and Parliament, plus the wealthy land owners and merchants, continued to abuse the lower classes. They rose up with noble ides, like their American cousins, to rally for more freedom and equality – universal suffrage, voting rights, the end of tariffs and better wages.
This all led up to a sunny day in St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, where a crowd of 60,000 or more came to cheer on a reformist speaker. But at the end, they were trampled, stabbed and shot by the King’s Army and local police. Thus the “Massacre at Peterloo” was born, a play on name “Battle of Waterloo”.
At the end of Waterloo, a single British bugler, Joseph (David Moorst) remains in a field. He stumbles all the way back to his hometown of Manchester. Back with his father Joshua (Pearce Quigley) and mother Nellie (Maxine Peake), life is harder than ever. The end of wartime has ended the hardship, suffering and toil of the common British worker. The dawning of the Industrial Age has made 16-hour days and child labor a big thing. Common people look for a way to get a better deal out of life.
The dream of Radical Reform, a way to change government and society to be more equal and just, is coming to the lower classes. The King and other Royalty are not impressed by the ideas of change. Major speakers, such as Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt (Rory Kinnear) are well known in the country and they are spreading the ideas of equal representation and voting rights.
Many people in Manchester decide that getting Henry Hunt up to the northern reaches of England would spark the population and help to bring about change. The local farmers, small shop owners and textile mill workers plea with him to visit and speak to a crowd of local folk. The District magistrates and local constables are spying on the townsfolk to see if they are getting out of hand. They are worried that a new fresh change in the politics could put them all out of a job.
The Home Secretary in London sends an Army officer to the area to amass a large group of soldiers. They are all back from war in France, so they can be a military show of force at home. Mistrust and bad manners are also getting in the way of a united English people. Various newspaper people are also interested in how the large group of people in Manchester will react when Henry Hunt speaks to them.
The day comes, and Henry Hunt is ready for a big crowd. He has some stirring words to say to everyone. During Hunt’s speech, one of the magistrates reads the Riot Act out of open window – out to the crowd. The crowd does not hear any of that, but now the magistrates are able to disperse the meeting. They will use any means that they require to end Hunt’s speech and to arrest the people in charge.
The Army cavalry charges out riding horses to attack the peaceful assembly with sabers at the ready. Hunt and the others are arrested. The army forces try to clear St Peter’s Fields. But there are too many people, and the entire event ends in bedlam and mayhem. Some people in the crowd are killed and many more injured. The bugler Joseph, now returned home, is stabbed with a sword. He dies, along with a little over a dozen others. There are many more injured and hurting. Word gets out that the “Massacre at Peterloo” was an affront against the English people from their out-of-control government.
“Peterloo” is an honest effort to teach people about a savage and unfortunate event in British history. The biggest problem is the medium that is used. The ideas that are brought up and explained in this movie could have been expanded and given more time to digest – but only if this had been created as a limited mini-series. Perhaps on Amazon Prime, because they are the movie’s main producer. With a length of over two and a half hours, the movie still feels rushed, just because there are too many threads that are left unresolved.
Perhaps Mike Leigh, as the writer, was thinking that he would be paid by the word. There are so many speeches and speechifying in this movie that it eventually gets like verbal assault on the ears. There are never any true human characters in the movie, nobody that makes an emotional connection. Each person was mostly just a symbol – the Old Farmer, the Drunk Townsman, the Sneaky London Political Player, the High-Minded yet Soft-Spoken Leader…
All of these people are given words (lot and lots of words) that seem to written as a dry dissertation by a boring English Professor of British History. Very little of it could be relatable to the honest common workers of Manchester. There is even a part when a woman a small group meeting stands up and complains that everyone is using too many big words that they she does not understand. The same could be said for the audience, most of the time.