Review: PETERLOO Is A Politically-Charged And Harrowing Portrait Of History

peterloo rally
Credit: Simon Mein / Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Peterloo is a new historical drama film written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies, Mr. Turner). The movie tells the story of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre and the events that led up to it, during which peaceful protestors at a pro-democracy rally were attacked brutally by British forces. It played at festivals including the 2018 Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival to positive reviews.

The true story upon which this film is based is very interesting. In a time when government corruption and use of excessive force are still prevalent issues in our society, this movie can serve as an important warning as to what can happen when those things go unchecked. The film definitely has a very clear stance as to who was just in the situation, although it does not ignore the other perspective, acknowledging it while beating it down.

One of the more prevalent themes in the movie is the idea of how to define the “greater good”. Theoretically, governments are supposed to operate in the service of their people, but with the clearly defined class divisions that exist within society, especially in that time, a decision that benefits some is not going to benefit all. As such, the film poses the question of whether or not it is fair to allow some people to benefit or if all should be left to suffer equally.

With this, there is a motif of collectivism within the movie. The film isn’t about the individual people in the story, but rather, working class citizens as a whole. However, this approach is a bit of a double-edged sword, with an end result that is ultimately unsatisfying because of a lack of character development. It is hard to truly get invested in a story when you don’t really know much about the people involved, and this movie has that challenge.

Yet despite the fact that the characters aren’t particularly well-developed, many of the actors do a fine job in their roles. The actors are able to add some emotional nuance to the characters that almost makes up for the thin writing in certain cases. For example, David Moorst, who plays Joseph (one of the main characters), does an excellent job of being the vulnerable humanity of the character. Rory Kinnear is also very good in his role as Henry Hunt, a powerful but somewhat self-centered speaker.

peterloo joseph
PETERLOO featuring David Moorst as Joseph. Credit: Simon Mein. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

There are a handful of moments in the film in which the emotion does truly stand out. The first is a sequence relatively early on in the movie in which we see the unfairness of the British legal system at that time. It is sad to see a man sentenced to death for stealing a coat when he was freezing to death. This scene could have been made even more effective had the characters been more developed. The other effective scene is the eponymous massacre, as it is shot in a way that is so horrifying and heart-wrenching to see.

Had the whole film been as emotionally resonant as these scenes, it would have been among the best movies of the year. Unfortunately, a majority of the rest of the film feels like filler. It is never slow or boring, which is a feat given the two-and-a-half hour runtime, but it seems like there is a ton of material that isn’t particularly necessary and is just exposition to reinforce the movie’s political agenda. There is definitely some brilliant stuff there, but it is underneath layers of material that is just solid.

On a technical level, the film is mostly impressive. The only part of the execution that is a bit of a letdown is the sound mixing. The opening scene of the movie, an extremely brief battle sequence, sounds rough and hollow compared to other war films. This same issue applies to the massacre sequence. The cinematography and editing, on the other hand, are great all-around. The look of the movie is immersive, and as tension begins to mount, the visuals give the story a necessary element of energy.

Overall, Peterloo was a mostly solid film. Although it could have benefitted from cutting down on some of the politics in favor of stronger character development, it is nonetheless very powerful and interesting.

Peterloo is now playing in select theaters.

By Sean Boelman

Sean is a film student, aspiring filmmaker, and life-long cinephile. For as long as he can remember, he has always loved film, but he credits the film Pan's Labyrinth as having started his love of film as art. Sean enjoys watching many types of films, although some personal favorite genres include dramatic comedies, romantic comedies, heist films, and art horror.

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