On August 16, 1819, protesters quickly gather in Manchester. Families, wearing their best clothes, their dog running between their legs, and smiles on their faces, arrive in large numbers at St Peter’s Field, to participate in what they think is going to be a peaceful rally. But soon, the cavalry called by local authorities crashes into them with sabres lifted into the air. This is how dozens of innocent people get killed and others injured. Drawing a parallel with the very recent Waterloo, that fearful event was named the ‘Peterloo Massacre’.
Peterloo is not what you would probably expect from an epic drama. It is more about the etymology of the event rather than war, blood and chaos itself. In the film, director Mike Leigh dissects as cautiously as possible this obscure and little-known British historical occurrence, patiently explaining its roots and foundations. For him, the narrative relies on the little things showing the hardship of daily life at a time when famine was striking at the working classes. Therefore, from market street to debate rooms, the sequences answer one another in echoes, playing a game of causes and consequences. Through a series of speeches, Peterloo examines the motives and the discontent of a suffocating population: the people speak up, men and women, supporters and detractors, in a practice of early democracy.
In all its technical aspects and political rhetorics, emotion is rare but can be found nevertheless in one single touching character that we are able to follow from the opening scene to the very end. David Moorst plays young and lone soldier Joseph, as he wanders in a state of shock on the battlefield of Waterloo. Just like his fellow redcoats, Joseph is dropped home without transition, clearly traumatised and disoriented while the aristocracy extol the virtues of victory. But after reuniting with his family, Joseph also has to confront extreme poverty on top of his own post traumatic stress disorder. His time-line wraps around the plot and even if it unclear at the start, Joseph embodies the whole essence of Peterloo.
It is true that the film can throw off due to its lack of energy. Peterloo feels pulseless at times as the story’s heart beats very slow. And when the jump and explosion finally occur, it only comes at the end which can unleash frustration. But after all, it is certainly the effect Mike Leigh wants to make as he strips Peterloo of any romanticised and superficial idea. Helped by an authentic cinematography by Dick Pope and period accurate costume design by Jacqueline Durran, the director is not interested in the grand gesture and lyrical score, but only in a retelling of the story as close as possible to reality.
From the carnage of battlefield back to civilian life, Peterloo is all about the building tensions and the slow gathering of a whirlwind of clouds, without showing the intensity and rage of the storm. Informative and talkative, it might fall flat however if you were not ready to attend a particularly in-depth history lecture.
by Marie-Célia Cannenpasse
Marie-Célia is from a French Caribbean island, and currently studying applied foreign languages at Sorbonne University in Paris, whilst taking filmmaking courses online. She enjoys listening to soundtracks curled up under a comfy duvet on rainy days, gushing about Kate Winslet or Christian Bale on a daily basis, and crying over the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace. Her favourite films include Gone with the wind, Super 8, Call me by your name and The Prestige. You can find her on Twittter @MCeliaCR and on letterboxd too @MCeliaCR.