First and foremost, Peterloo is Leigh’s most grand and ambitious project to date, a 2-and-a-half-hour opus that includes majestic battle scenes, some involving hundreds of extras, sweeping cinematic wide shots of 19th century British countryside, and dozens more intimate scenes featuring a galaxy of characters.
The setting is early 1800s north England, almost 200 years ago almost to the day, where an uprising is taking place politically and socially. The working and middle classes from the north are rallying to have their say in who runs the country – then, just a group of wealthy politicians from London made decisions for the whole country – and meetings are taking place across the northern counties, people coming together to get their voice heard. It is here where plans are made to descend on Manchester is a mass peace-march which will see somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 people turn up for the cause.
Leigh writes and directs, crafting his movie with the most intricate of detail. The production design and costumes are hugely impressive, every detail tendered to with the finest of attention. The mostly British cast is first-rate, a stand-out being the ever-impressive Maxine Peake, once again excelling in every scene she’s involved in. David Moorst’s war-torn Joseph, the first character we see on-screen during the film’s opening, shell-shocked in the battlefields of Waterloo, also delights in a near-mute performance, while Rory Kinnear’s dazzling, confident turn as Henry Hunt is the film’s most recognisable face and is near faultless in his delivery of the middle-class landowner from Wiltshire.
One must be invested in the story that Leigh is trying to tell. The filmmaker takes his time in building the story, dedicating only the final 20 minutes or so to deal with the ugly events at Peterloo, choosing to have the first two hours devoted to the characters involved, and the film is all the better for that.
The cinematography is unparalleled, particularly during its climax, but you can see from the very opening scenes that Dick Pope is on top form here. In terms of the soundtrack, Leigh chooses his moments, a superb score running throughout, though the filmmaker opts not to include it over the narrative’s culmination, instead opting for a soundtrack made up of superbly executed sound design using pure sound effects. From admiration in terms of the filmmaking, it is phenomenal.
As much as this is Leigh’s most determined and ambitious film, it’s also Mike Leigh at his absolute best. It’s historical relevance, attention to detail and uncompromising accuracy is outstanding, the cinematic, sheer epic-ness of it is second to none, and all must at least attempt a look. It’s a very under-told event in British history – one that I was ashamed to say that I wasn’t aware of – and also one of the most important. It’s also a great piece of filmmaking and potential awards-season fodder.
Special features include a filmmaker’s commentary, as well as three making of featurettes, and trailer, all of which present a decent package worthy of purchase.
Peterloo is now available on digital download, Blu-ray and DVD.