Peterloo: All talk and visual detail in the build-up to Mike Leigh's take on a notorious workers massacre

By Thom Ernst

Rating: B-minus

Mike Leigh's epic historical drama, Peterloo, is a purposely drawn-out string of debates leading up to the tragic 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, England that left 18 people dead, including four women and one infant.

There are enough speeches in the movie to make the film seem more curated than directed. But hang in until the third act, and you are likely to find that the lecture has a significant payoff. 

The workers are restless, and it’s all talk in Peterloo, until the target practice begins.

The workers are restless, and it’s all talk in Peterloo, until the target practice begins.

There is no Peterloo; instead, there is a Peter Field where thousands of disenfranchised workers staged a peaceful demonstration against a privileged ruling class. 

The event, as depicted, turns violent when fearful landowners press Parliament to send in armed forces to disperse the defenseless crowd. "A Waterloo on Peter's Field," notes one character observing the carnage in the aftermath.

Much of Peterloo's two-and-a-half-hour run us spent with orators raging on the parliamentary stage and in the courtrooms, town halls and kitchens of the British lower class. "Less talk more action," laments Maxine Peake, playing a matriarch and wife of a protestor. And no doubt there will be those watching the film arguing for the same. It can be laborious keeping up with the multitude of characters and their agendas, from the recently-reformed Joshua (Pearce Quigley) to Mary (Rachel Finnegan) whose own movement rallies women to the cause.  

In time, Leigh elevates the leading players to the forefront, bringing everyone together for a final confrontation. 

Perhaps Leigh's point here, even if it is fastidiously played out in scene after scene, is that talk can inspire and give direction but the affect is not fully understood until the words are put into action.

 Peterloo is Leigh's third historical period piece, a string which began with the release in 1999 of the Gilbert and Sullivan biopic, Topsy Turvy, followed by Mr. Turner, his film about British painter, J.M.W. Turner, released in 2014. 

Each of these films clocks in at the 150-minute mark and show little interest in barreling through the narrative. Peterloo is less biographical then those mentioned above, although there is in here the aristocratic rabble-rouser, Henry Hunt, played with pompous conceit by Rory Kinnear. Hunt voices the rage of the people, but his arrogance remains steadfastly aloof; it is a dichotomy that curiously and sometimes comically links the two opposing factions.  

Most enjoyable is that Leigh's precise eye for the era is meticulously observed in all aspects of turn-of-century life. The details that show up in the costume and set design breathe interest in what is otherwise a sober and steady pace.  

If Leigh's big gripe here - aside from the senseless attack against unarmed civilians and the social injustice of taxation without representation - is the overall lack of familiarity with the Peterloo Massacre, then Peterloo more than sufficiently addresses that concern. You will not leave Peterloo ignorant of the facts nor numb to the atrocities.  

Peterloo. Written and directed by Mike Leigh. Starring Pearce Quigley, Rachel Finnegan and Rory Kinnear. Opens Friday, May 17 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.