Peterloo is very like one of those particularly good lectures that people who aren’t even in your history class make a point of dropping in to hear. It is composed almost exclusively of long speeches, bracketed by more Socratic style conversations. Mike Leigh lays out this world of 1819 England carefully, in thorough detail, mostly through words, with the occasional visual aid—a set composed like a painting—displayed behind. You know how the class will end: it ends with the Peterloo Massacre, when law enforcement officers on horseback ran into a crowd of peaceful working class protesters at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, swords drawn. As you near that end, because you’re nearing that end, you find yourself gripped. A sword is poised over the entire lecture hall, as Professor Leigh gets closer, and closer. And when he gets there, with a shock, he suddenly switches mediums. It’s still film, in the movie, but the scene of the massacre lands like a lecturer pausing, and beginning to play an old song, unaccompanied and powerful. No more talk, just a kind of harrowing music, in the screaming of people and horses.
There were two moments where I said something aloud while watching Peterloo. One was about halfway through, when I announced “Break time!” This movie is two and a half hours long, and it feels it. But if you stream it (on Amazon Prime in the U.S., who bought this class warfare movie for distribution, bizarrely), there is a scene where three men on fiddles play a little tune by a stream, overheard by two women who are walking through the grass and stop to listen appreciatively. This little interlude occurs about an hour and fifteen in, and is the perfect signal for you to take a breather.
The second time I said something was to announce in quiet, mountingly desperate surprise: “I feel like I’m going to go out of my mind.” This was in the latter half, as the protest drew near. The first half of Peterloo is slow and boring, in the ways people who do not enjoy the early Star Trek series find those shows slow and boring, wondering how long these moving but yes somewhat broad characters are going to be standing around discussing matters of justice within a faintly alien social system. The content does not change in the second half, not until the final fifteen minutes, but the tension and doom began to build hot in my blood.
Peterloo can seem like a very staid sort of movie, a straight costume piece about a particular period of history, rigorously un-romanticized. But my god this movie can get you really worked up. At one point, watching these early 19th-century English working people speak so urgently about not being represented in their country’s government, I was suddenly swept anew with frustration over my own country’s gerrymandering, the electoral college, the fucking senate system, and I got so mad for a second I couldn’t see straight. It’s been 200 years since 1819! 200 years and we STILL don’t have a true representational democracy! We are still held in the grip of greedy landowners, who really believe they’re doing their employees a favor by paying them with the money they’ve produced through their labor! And we still have militarized police violently putting down those who try to do anything about it. Fuck.
Peterloo brings a new meaning to the term slow burn. ‘Slowly incendiary’, maybe. This is great filmmaking. This is that history lecture you don’t want to miss.