Directed by Mike Leigh, PETERLOO (2018) is a British historical drama about the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in Manchester, England, currently streaming on Amazon Prime. At nearly 2.5 hours in runtime, the film is powerful if bloated and challenging, particularly with its dense political speeches. Still, the history warranted this approach in my view. From the beautiful cinematography and detailed sets to the historical accuracy and importance of the subject matter, this was a terrific watch for me.
The film’s story plays out in two layers. The first is an average family of British laborers living in Manchester in England’s industrial north, struggling to get by in the economic slump following the Napoleonic Wars. The second is the machinations of radicals hoping to achieve parliamentary reform to give Manchester and the working class greater representation in government, and the utterly corrupt government officials fearing the kind of revolutionary fervor that overthrew the monarchy in France. These storylines come together in a mass rally where the famed radical orator Henry Hunt would give a speech to a crowd of 60,000 people, and the government’s horrific reaction.
The storylines work well together. The leaders of the radical movement clearly spell out the horrible conditions of the working class, greed of the capitalist factory owners, utter corruption of the government, and Britain’s democracy entirely tilted toward government by and for land owners. The family shows us what all this means on a daily basis. Meanwhile, we see the heavy-handedness of the government reaction behind the scenes, with brutal police tactics against dissent that are used to this day, and their willingness to use force to preserve the status quo.
The politics are important but laid on thick, as we see multiple speeches by various radical leaders and a whole lot of interactions between the radical leaders and government officials. Still, I imagine to many viewers this will start to feel like a slog after a while. Personally, I enjoyed the depth and open sentiments, clearly spelling out what was at stake for the average laborer. For our modern times, it provides a nice reminder that while social justice is important, a just economy is just as vital.
Check it out if you’re interested in a deep, fiery historical drama about a little known but very important event in British history, supported by a terrific cast including Rory Kinnear and Karl Johnson.