2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

Most historical accounts are told from the perspective of the leaders of the event, but director Mike Leigh (Mr Turner) chose a different angle on the infamous 1819 Peterloo Massacre. Beginning the story on the battlefield of Waterloo and showing the shellshocked experience of a British soldier, the award-winning writer and director sets the stage for a tale of unbelievable proportions. Depicting how the vast majority of participants in this event were merely innocent bystanders and victims in this tragic event. 

Not long after the overwhelming victory at the Battle of Waterloo, General Sir John Byng (Alistair MacKenzie) is given the responsibility of managing the unrest in the North of England. An area of the country where the war has led to high unemployment and restrictions on corn imports which combined with years of bad harvests made for the rise of political radicals. Due to having no representation in the Parliament and no voting rights, pro-franchise meetings are held by moderate socialists and are attended by most of the local workers. This unrest leads the local newsmen to organise a pro-democracy rally at St Peter’s Field in Manchester.  

PETERLOO courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Even with restrictions imposed by the Prince Regent and the Manchester magistrates imposing severe punishments on the working community, the local band of leaders convinced orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) to come to rally the local residents. The landowners hire spies and the local police to cause division among the pro-democratic leaders, but the plans move forward for the event and people begin the migration to the large public space. 

On the day of the event, Byng decides to put his deputy in charge of security and instructs him to maintain order while the general attends the local horse races. Eventually, over 60,000 people attend the event and the local magistrates take the law into their own hands and look to disband the crowd, but chaos ensues leading to many protesters being killed and thousands injured. 

Told from the perspective of the local leadership, workers and families, Leigh attempts to open a window to the average person’s perspective on this portion of history. He manages to have the audience piece together the various components of the story and how a multitude of small situations led to the inevitable massacre occurring. Providing a variation of storytelling that puts the responsibility of understanding into the minds of the audience,  leads to a mixed bag of visual experiences. The ingenuity of direction shows that an artist is at work behind the camera and will divide viewers into a camp who can truly appreciate the artistry and those who will question the quality of the film. 

In an attempt to capture the far-reaching impact of this incident, there is no central character to follow throughout the journey. Even though Henry Hunt plays a vital role, he becomes a bit part in the overall story which means each segment becomes part of interconnected vignettes that lead to the massacre. A method of filmmaking that does need to be acknowledged as creative, but does suffer from a lack of sufficient editing. While attempting to fill in every potential plot point, the film drags on and fails to support the emotionally charged conclusion. 

Peterloo does provide a fascinating depiction of a portion of history that most would never know occurred. The sheer scale of pulling together this rally was an immense undertaking and the final result was devastating. The decision to focus on the organisational aspects of the rally as opposed to showing more of the protest itself feels like coming to a concert and watching the set up of the band and only 15 minutes of the musicians playing. Even though it is fascinating historically, the screenplay’s emphasis was poorly placed and led to boredom as opposed to captivating drama.  

REEL DIALOGUE: How far are people willing to go for their convictions?

Even without fully understanding each historical aspect of Peterloo, it is hard not to appreciate the conviction of belief of those involved in the protest. Being willing to sacrifice income, persecution of the ruling class and with potental time in prison looming for their conviction would cause anyone to pause and think. 

For Christians this standard is set by the leader of this belief system in stating “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  Are you willing to risk it all for your beliefs and if not, what is the limit to your convictions? 

1. What does the Bible say about politics? (Deuteronomy 15:7-11, Romans 13:1-7)

2. Can we ever find true justice? (Proverbs 21:15, Romans 12:19)

3. Is it okay to stand up for your beliefs? (Proverbs 25: 26, Ephesians 6: 10-17)