Few movies that look so promising could end up so lackluster.
Peterloo, written by and directed by Mike Leigh, is a colossally disappointing film. It covers a massacre in 1819 when the British military charged into a peaceful democratic rally in Manchester, England. The movie draws its title from the fact that this took place in an area known as St. Peter’s Field shortly after the British defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
I was drawn to this film primarily because of my love of history. As I have previously noted, that was my college major, and movies have a way of bringing to life moments that many people have forgotten.
Mr. Leigh is a director who has previously brought us some great films ranging from The Charge of the Light Brigade (1988) to Vera Drake (2004). However, the simple fact with Peterloo is that Mr. Leigh found a way to suck most of the emotion out of a heartbreaking event that should have brought most of the audience to the edge of tears. However, while the film is not helped by its length of two hours and forty-five minutes, Mr. Leigh for unknown reasons allows his cameras to rob the film of any emotional or historical significance.
The bottom line is that a pro-democracy group in England sought to force London to allow voters the power to elect members of the House of Commons from their own district. As things stood, most people were simply forced to work for incredibly small wages at factories where the owners and their wealthy allies in the House of Lords controlled the country. While this is a powerful theme in and of itself, the film jumps from one competing group to the next where you regrettably keep privately thinking, “Why in the hell won’t they just get on to the massacre?”
However, when that occurs, multiple characters are given such limited exposure that you have a hard time learning who was killed and who survived. What makes matters worse, Director Leigh does not provide you at the end of the film with any summary of how many innocent protestors were killed by the troops and its effect on the national government. All you see are brief scenes with an inebriated English King who seems more dedicated to spending time with his incredibly unlikeable mistress that doing anything to help his people.
While this is not set out in the film, anyone with a casual knowledge of history knows that 1819 was a tough year for England. While they defeated Napoleon, they were still dealing with the aftereffects of the American Revolution and the subsequent war of 1812, not to mention the impact of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th Century. The sad reality was that those controlling the government in England were wrestling with reestablishing their empire that covered much of the globe and had no desire to be distracted by working class English demonstrators who sought a better life.
Regardless, this movie will quickly disappear from the big screen and is not likely to provide much interest to any of you at home. In any event, if you have any lingering interest, then find a way to travel to Europe as I did years ago and visit the battlefield at Waterloo which is still maintained. Unlike this film that experience will linger in your mind for a long time.