For many Americans, Peterloo is a distinctly English moment in history, one left out of our textbooks, for it was a tragedy specific to the United Kingdom and its multitude of conflicts over these centuries. So goes director Mike Leigh, an auteur for whom an American film would be quite the scandal. His films are decidedly English, often to the point of excluding recognizable faces, even famous British faces. Peterloo is one of those films, starring an ensemble of British thespians you’ve likely never seen before, with the possible exception of Rory Kinnear (Skyfall) and, in a very brief role, Ben Crompton of Game of Thrones. While Peterloo is particular to Old Blighty, it’s quite a universal tale of class warfare and social inequity, one regarding King George IV’s lordship over a starving nation. Local magistrates have been upholding and subverting the law with extreme prejudice and a lack of restraint (despite so many proclamations to the contrary), considering their town denizens to be subjects more than citizens.
When the King and his lackeys smell social rebellion, they bring a hammer and the boot down upon them, utilizing a clever spy network to infiltrate and expose or imprison them, including posh, respected orator Henry Hunt, a man who leads the charge for civil and political rights. Unfortunately still relevant, it’s especially familiar hearing wealthy authorities denigrate a campaign for justice as sedition and radicalism, as if protesting terrible living amounted to treason or terrorism. Leigh’s painterly images give Peterloo an appropriately epic, even beautiful canvas despite so much grey and brown. His script becomes a tad repetitive in the middle stretch, as men and women jockey for position in the coming march for rights. The thrill of Leigh’s florid dialogue gives way to monotony when there are simply too many scenes of men in rooms debating the manners and mores of their grand campaign. But what a thrill it is to hear such delectable speeches, and what a time it is for working people to remain struggling two-hundred years later. The more things change the more they stay the same.