About halfway through “Peterloo,” one of the characters stands up to argue that there’s been enough talk and it’s time for action.
He’s speaking to the other people at a political rally, but he might as well be talking to director Mike Leigh.
This drama, which takes its title from an 1819 clash between British soldiers and peaceful protesters demanding the right to vote, has a powerful, kick-in-the-gut ending. But getting there requires a lot of patience.
Markedly different from the other movies in Leigh’s award-filled, 48-year career, this vast drama has 160 speaking roles and spends the bulk of its 2 ½-hour running time setting up the big finish. And while one can appreciate what Leigh is doing, it’s still a bit frustrating to sit through.
The setting is northern England. Fueled by the Industrial Revolution, the working class is growing exponentially, much to the concern of the aristocracy, which is trying to keep workers in their place through capricious laws and taxes.
With each edict, discontent grows among the masses, who feel they should have the right to vote on the issues that affect their lives. (And, yes, it was all about the men getting to vote; it would be another century before women would be considered worthy of such a privilege.)
Leigh does a painstaking job of chronicling this. It starts with families grumbling among themselves, grows into small groups complaining in pubs and then morphs into political rallies that start with a couple dozen people and gradually grow to a couple of hundred, then a couple thousand. By the time the protesters held a massive demonstration in Manchester’s St. Peter’s Field, 60,000 people were on hand.
The problem Leigh faces in documenting the burgeoning of this movement is repetition. We sit through speech after speech — at dinner tables, over beers, to small groups and then large ones — all saying essentially the same thing. And while it’s interesting — at least, at first — to listen to the flowery language of the period, it’s not that complicated a concept that it needs to be spelled out multiple times.
While Britain’s power-hoarding elite come off as the bad guys in this scenario, Leigh cuts them some slack by pointing out that classism is so ingrained in their culture that they can’t put it aside, even among themselves. When the magistrates hold a meeting to try to figure out how to respond to the St. Peter’s Field protest, they spend half their time arguing with each other over the pecking order around the table.
Although the epic scale of the movie is new to Leigh, he handles it with the capability one would expect from such an experienced filmmaker. In fact, the more people involved in a scene, the better it is, with people shouting over one another and, at times, listening to no one.
Leigh is less successful in trying to find a through character to tie together the various elements. He created a fictional character: a young, shellshocked army bugler, Joseph (David Moorst), who is returning to England after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.
Joseph, however, is overshadowed by more forceful personalities. Eventually, political activist Harry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) — a genuine historical figure — becomes the center of the story, but he doesn’t make an appearance until the last third of the film, when he’s summoned to be keynote speaker at the rally.
Although clearly made for a British audience (some of the accents are so thick that subtitles wouldn’t be out of order), there’s a universality to the issues “Peterloo” explores. And, once you get through all the speechmaking, it provides an emotional kick that will resonate anywhere.