VOD Review: Peterloo.
Amazon Studio’s historical drama packs a working-class punch, but lacks an engaging lead to center the story.
Oscar nominated director Mike Leigh is well known across the pond for his striking depictions of British society. The story of the Peterloo Massacre, where poor workers and their families were ruthlessly crushed by military force while seeking political reform, should be right in Leigh’s wheelhouse. The drama starts off promisingly, moving deftly from the end of the battle of Waterloo back to the squalor of working-class Manchester through the eyes of a traumatized soldier. While Leigh piles on the proletariat outrage, the story slips out of focus as we never again find a strong central character to focus the narrative. Instead of a lived-in drama with real teeth, Peterloo becomes a working-class polemic. While I do like me a good working-class polemic, by the end I was left with the same question as many of the film’s labor agitators: what did all of this accomplish?
Joshua (Pearce Quigley) stands transfixed on the battlefield of Waterloo, surrounded by carnage. He tentatively blows his bugle, but the battle has all but forgotten him. While Parliament falls all over itself to shower glory and riches on the landed officers of the battle, we see Joshua limp home, barefoot and still covered in the blood and soot of battle. Back home in Manchester, life is just as bleak. Ruinous tariffs and political corruption have made the working class into virtual slaves. Many in Joshua’s family are taken with the reform movement, where persuasive orators stoke the dream of “one man, one vote,” even for the commoners. As the reform movement works on creating its largest rally yet in St. Peter’s Fields, those in power use every tool in their arsenal to jail and silence the leaders of the movement.
A Spark of Outrage.
Peterloo gets its politics out in the open front and center. By contrasting the machinations of the politically well-heeled with the efforts of the working-class, its not hard to understand the issues at play. I can see why Leigh is making the film (besides it being the 200th anniversary of the massacre.) Many of the same issues being fought against are the same as face folks in the UK (and US) today: tariffs wreaking havoc on the lower class, capture of the political machine by the wealthy elites, sham elections, and disastrous inequality. These arrows all hit home. I was a little amused that Amazon studios were the folks to pick this picture up. When the boss at Amazon, Jeff Bezos, makes the yearly salary of his average worker every 11.5 seconds, it takes a lot of brass to then put your stamp on a film where ruinous labor inequality is the main target.
A Sea of Faces.
The fire and fury of the films politics gets muted by the lack of a real audience surrogate. Joshua seems like our man at the outset, and his story is mostly effective. Unfortunately, he disappears into the background for the vast majority of the film. On one level, it makes sense – the soldier he was based was at both Waterloo and Peterloo, but he wasn’t a big cog in the reform machine. If we only followed him, we’d be on the outside looking in for most of the film.
An inverse surrogate seems to also present himself at the outset in the person of John Byng, the man put in charge of the tumultuous Norther District of England. He also served at Waterloo, and hoped to receive a plum position. Ultimately, he gets the lousy job of administering a region where he has no background and which is a tinder box for rebellion. Perhaps watching his disaffection and maneuvering on the rich end of the spectrum could counterpoint Joshua’s perspective. Nope. He too disappears for the rest of the film until the very end.
By the end of the film, I had lost track of who to care about. There are too many characters with interchangeable roles, played by actors I’ve never seen before. Compound this with the period dress making everyone look more or less identical and you have a muddle of underdeveloped characters you’re not attached too. That’s a big problem.
The big climax of the film is…anticlimactic. The production budget was sufficient to create some great costume work and scenery, but the final battle feels low-rent. An inciting incident, of a child being trampled, is really chintzy. The camera work for the massacre never impresses one as being particularly “cinematic” in scope or technique. It feels like a BBC reenactment. I don’t need the pyrotechnics and bloody sang froid of a Michael Collins here. Just maybe a little bit of style, please?
The battle also dulls much of the thrust of the narrative in the way Joshua dies. There was a perfect opportunity to contrast the scenes of Joshua at Waterloo with him in strikingly similar circumstance at Peterloo, and to show how the misapplication of military force on civilians (another hot-button current topic) was more brutal than actual warfare. Instead Josh just kind of dies. It was such a wasted moment, and emblematic of how I felt about Peterloo by the end.
Peterloo has quite a bit, narratively, under the hood. In fact, I think it has too much, the detriment of character and world building. Peterloo feels, in the end, like a BBC period drama. Had the events been fleshed out into a serial, I think we could have actually gotten some character development and proper investment into the events. The British reform movement of the early 1800’s is hardly common knowledge and could have stood a deeper treatment. As it stands, Peterloo takes a relatively obscure event, fills it with relatively obscure people, and fizzles out at the end.