Mike Leigh has — to his credit — spoken about how this film is, among other things, intended as a corrective to the British education system. Venture onto social media, and this country seems riddled with people who could speak at length about obscure corners of American politics but are at a loss on the repeal of the Corn Laws, the Chartists or, yes, the Peterloo massacre — a crucial moment in the development of British democracy that’d likely stump plenty of people who’d consider themselves pretty switched on.
This makes this dramatisation of the build-up to and bloodbath on that terrible day easy to admire, but it’s not so easy to warm to. Comparisons with Leigh’s peer Ken Loach are inevitable, but Loach’s flair for making politics compelling — think the spiky debate scene in Land And Freedom — makes the scenes of speechifying here seem relatively staid. That said, the various strains of political thought prior to the killings — including calls for violent insurrection, complete with military-style drills — get their due. And if you’re into guys in hats yelling at other guys in hats, this is the film for you.
The sheer anger Leigh feels burns through the screen.
Fortunately, Leigh’s ability to glean performances that don’t look like performances is in full effect. Rory Kinnear and Maxine Peake stand out as respectively a proto-Hampstead liberal and pragmatic housewife struggling to put bread on the table, but in truth, there’s not a rum turn in the cast of thousands.
This cast of thousands does mean there’s a lack of focus, though. Nobody’s asking for a hero’s journey with this material, but characters do wander in and out, and there are so many in the various strata that there’s no time for most of them to have anything to them beyond the 1810s version of a LinkedIn profile. Leigh seems to be going for a Peter Watkins, quasi-documentary, flaunt-the-research approach — but even at 154 minutes, there’s just not enough time for anybody to feel bedded in. It’s tempting to wish Netflix had opened up its infinite wallet to give Leigh the chance to make a miniseries where individuals had the chance to breathe.
But then the theatrical experience and the added intensity it brings would be lost. And we are still dealing with a gifted filmmaker here — one who’s taking on a major subject. The sheer anger Leigh feels burns through the screen, its power ultimately overwhelming any flaws you may have previously noticed. The climactic massacre’s descent from political rally to street battle is meticulous and gut-wrenching. Avoiding Paul Greengrass-style shaky-camera chaos, Leigh forensically shows how command structures and the choices of individuals on the ground affects the body count. It’s a truly astonishing sequence that won’t be forgotten soon.