Mike Leigh’s last film – Mr. Turner – about English landscape painter J. M. W. Turner, played by Timothy Spall was a spectacular visual experience without the use of animation or CGI and Peterloo continues and I think goes one better than Mr. Turner. Peterloo is a dramatic look at one of the most important events in the establishment of labour rights, women’s suffrage and democratic reform in English history. In 1819 a gathering of workers, women and commoners met in Manchester at St. Peter’s Field. Nearly 100,000 people came to hear a speech from a parliamentary reformer and start a movement to address the repression of the time. The landowners and factory owners were terrified and called in the army. The result was a horrendous massacre. The press of the time named the event Peterloo after the recent battle of Waterloo. Although the immediate outcome was greater repression, ultimately major reforms came forward to address the demands of the people. Apparently, the Manchester Guardian, still a left-wing newspaper was founded as a result of the massacre.
The movie is a stunning portrayal of the repression of the time and the attitudes of those who were the oppressors. The tension of the film evolves slowly as we await the inevitable outcome. Some of the scenes reminded me of Dutch Master paintings with exquisite lighting and staging. Throughout the film Leigh’s brilliant visual sense is exhibited. The script and acting is also excellent. If I had a complaint it was length at 2.5 hours but to determine which scenes might be cut would be hard to be honest. While watching the film I felt that this was not just an historical record but a statement about today. One of the most disturbing scenes in the film is a textile factory where workers attend to automated weaving machines. As we learn more about how Amazon warehouse workers are treated or how underpaid Walmart workers are, or how Uber drivers are treated as contract workers to save having to provide health benefits or job security it was hard not see the similarities. The violent repression is not so far away should these workers decide to revolt. Definitely one of the best films of my week with a message for our modern times.