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Revolutionary stories don’t always make for revolutionary movies.
Peterloo begins at the very end of the Battle of Waterloo, where British forces finally defeated Napoleon. It quickly becomes apparent that “to the victor go the spoils” only applies to the rich. Immediately after the battle, the film cuts to Parliament, where the Duke of Wellington is awarded £750,000. Next, it introduces an ambitious young officer who is given political domain over all of Northern England. Finally, Peterloo turns to an infantry bugler named Joseph (David Moorst), who stumbles back home to Manchester as poor as when he left, only to find that there are no jobs waiting for him.
RELEASE DATE: 7/3/2019
DIRECTOR: Mike Leigh
STREAMING: Amazon Prime
This dramatization of the 1819 British massacre has far better politics than it does plot.
These developments set the tone for a story about the war at home, the never-ending battle between the haves and the have-nots. The people of Manchester suffer from economic inequality, harsh prison sentences, and police brutality. Callous aristocrats see the poor as unworthy of their sympathy and even despise them for their poverty. A breaking point is imminent. It’s just a question of when that point will come, and who will face consequences.
This all sounds like exciting material for a movie, but unfortunately, moments of great bravery and moral courage don’t always make for effective drama. From the beginning, Peterloo presents two sides—one righteous and one despicable—marching toward a predictable end. Most Americans probably aren’t intimately familiar with the Peterloo Massacre, an 1819 event in which British soldiers disrupted a peaceful public meeting of reformers, killing 18 and wounding hundreds. But even if you’re not caught up on your Regency-era history, you’ll quickly sense where the film is headed. One side has guns, money, and power. The other doesn’t.
Despite this central flaw, there is much to admire about Peterloo. Mike Leigh, the accomplished director of period dramas like Mr. Turner, Topsy-Turvy, and Vera Drake, once again delivers his trademark gorgeous imagery and admirable performances. His longtime director of photography Dick Pope also captures the same sumptuous images they achieved with the Oscar-nominated Mr. Turner. In an era of shrinking budgets for everything outside CGI blockbusters, it’s rare to see this level of care taken with each frame, and these two are some of the best in the business.
As with most wide release British costume dramas, the cast is stacked with classically trained actors. Rory Kinnear plays Henry Hunt, the closest thing to a leading man here, with passion and an honorable sense of burden. Though the part isn’t terribly compelling, Kinnear—whose work as The Creature in Penny Dreadful was one of the best television performances in recent years—does his best with a tricky assignment. Likewise, the rest of the ensemble elevates the material.
Unfortunately, the righteousness that makes the film’s protagonists so appealing also results in a story that just isn’t very dramatic. The local judges, politicians, and businessmen sneer at the underclass while the workers deliver soaring speech after soaring speech. With an upper class that lounges around drinking brandy and mocking peasants and a lower class that asks for just enough food to survive, it isn’t difficult to pick a side.
To make a revolutionary story like this work, you have to introduce some kind of moral ambiguity. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is about revolution, but it is a masterpiece because the central character, Jean Valjean, struggles with whether he’s worthy of redemption. Hugo understood that in a struggle with moral clarity, you need some other conflict to push the drama forward. He also understood that abstract political struggle needs material drama to sustain it; after all, one of the most memorable parts of Les Miserables is the love story.
What conflict does exist between the would-be revolutionaries in Peterloo is a matter of tactics. Henry Hunt fits the profile of many other revolutionary leaders, both fictional and real. A man of influence from the landowning class, he turns his back on his social order to support the working people. Other would-be leaders come from the working class and gravitate toward more intense and violent means. The use of violence versus the limits of propriety is compelling thematic territory. We see it in films like The Wind that Shakes the Barley and in real life as we debate the merits of Antifa. Peterloo bats the idea around but never really investigates it.
Leigh offers several other themes up for thought—the limits of bourgeois intellectuals at the head of a working-class revolution, the value of words versus actions, the realities of state violence—but quickly shoves them to the back seat in favor of lionizing his unassailable working-class heroes. The film fails to weigh in on any of these meaningfully, so as to not distract from the plight of the martyrs of Peterloo.
We’ve entered a new era of class consciousness, with a reemergence of socialist ideals and labor unionism in America, the U.K., and elsewhere. This moment has already produced excellent films like The Last Black Man of San Francisco and Sorry to Bother You. But plenty of mediocre films are bound to emerge as well. Peterloo has moments of beauty—a textile mill standing mill standing empty on the morning of the massacre evokes a haunting sense of calm. But without conflict between characters and in the minds of viewers, Peterloo fails to rise above a shiny piece of propaganda.
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Brenden Gallagher is a politics reporter and cultural commentator. His work has been published by Motherboard, Complex, and VH1. He’s the co-founder of Beer Money Films, an indie production company. Based in Los Angeles, he works in television drama as a writers assistant.