Peterloo, 2018, 3 ¾ stars

Massacre remembered

Peterloo  was 200 years in the making

Rory Kinnear (center, with hat raised) stars as orator Henry Hunt. (image copyright Film4 / BFI Film Fund / Thin Man Films)

Exclusive to MeierMovies, April 30, 2019

Apparently audiences would rather see comic-book superheroes die and be reborn than learn about real people’s deaths. Never mind that the Peterloo Massacre – in which 18 people were killed and hundreds injured in Manchester, England – is marking its 200th anniversary this year. And never mind that it’s being brought to the screen by British cinematic legend Mike Leigh. Maybe if Tony Stark or Thanos had been involved, the film would have made more than just $7,343 compared to the Avengers: Endgame domestic gross of more than $357,000,000 this weekend. (No, those figures aren’t typos.)

Peterloo deserves better, and so does Leigh. His thoughtful, well-crafted depiction of the 1819 massacre at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, England, will eventually find its audience, though it will likely have to wait for hardcore Leigh fans to discover it on DVD or Blu-ray.

Leigh’s films are almost always bathed in British culture, and Peterloo is no different. From the thick dialects of northern England, to the period garb, to the poverty-strewn faces of the old women barking half a dozen eggs for a “penny farthing” in the market, Peterloo weaves a rich tapestry. While some of the performances are uncharacteristically broad for a Leigh film and the history lesson sometimes feels a bit too much like, well, a history lesson, Peterloo is another worthwhile addition to a canon that includes Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake and Mr. Turner. Quality-wise, it’s a step below those films and more in line with Happy-Go-Lucky, but it still packs a punch emotionally and aesthetically.

For the details of the massacre, you will just have to see the movie (or brush up via Wikipedia). Suffice to say, the event was a turning point in the history of the British labor movement. Still, I was struck by the political parallels with today.

“Look at her, little angel,” one of the characters says about her young granddaughter, as she bemoans her family’s precarious economic situation. “I was just thinking: In 1900, she’ll be 85. … I hope it’s a better world for her.”

“Sommat get better,” her husband responds in a broad Manchester brogue befitting his social station. “Some thing’ll never change.”

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