PETERLOO - Review - We Are Movie Geeks



By  | 

Now here’s a historical epic that tackles a little known event (at least here in the states) involving an act of rebellion against Great Britain. Is this film about the American Revolution (that we know about) in the1770s? No, maybe it presents another version of India’s fight against British rule? Wrong, nor does is it present another incident from “the troubles” that plagued Ireland. 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of a tragedy stemming from a rebellion against the Crown and Parliament by her own countrymen. That’s right, it was not on foreign soil, rather it was St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester UK where much British blood was spilled. Harkening back to the military victory 16 years before against Napolean’s French forces, the local press dubbed this dark Monday PETERLOO.

This docudrama actually begins with the end of that battle, when the Duke of Wellington triumphed at the Battle of Waterloo. As the government decides to bestow a several thousand pound reward (could it be a bonus or an early version of the golden parachute), a traumatized, battered young man named Joseph (Davis Moorst) slowly walks the many miles to his tiny family flat in Manchester. Things have gotten worse in the northern villages and towns, to the point of economic depression. The main local employer, the busy mechanized cotton mills, are cutting back on wages. Unfortunately the taxes are just as brutal as ever. But not as brutal and cruel as the courts where the slightest of crimes elict harsh, sadistic sentences (deportation to Australia, public floggings, and executions). Because of the Corn Laws, cheaper foreign grains and food are denied the poplace. To top it off, the town doesn’t have a seat in Parliment. Several members of Joseph’s family are active in the underground reform movement (still the local authorities are most aware of the closed meeting thanks to several informants). Two of the local reform organizers travel soutth to hear a speech by reformist Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), and return with an idea to invite him to give a speech in Manschester uniting all the groups from nearby towns. Unfortunately the office of the Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson) intercepts the invitation. Along with the local Manchester magistrates they plan to arrest Hunt and deal a strong blow to the “radicals” by use of the military militia. Tensions build culminating on the day of the big speech on a hot August Monday (picked because it’s the start of the work week), as the magistrates (safely several stories above the 60,000 men, women, and children peacefully attending) read the Riot Act, while saber-wielding calvarymen ride in to disperse the crowds.

With such a sprawling tale (in the age of digital manipulation can we still really say, “A cast of thousands”), there’s no true lead actor here who figures into the story’s scenes from beginning to end. A point could be made for the film’s second and third acts that Kinnear as Hunt becomes the tale’s driving force and focus. The talented actor is more than up to the task channeling the charisma necessary for a speaker who would inspire hundreds to travel on foot in order to hear a bit of him (the big end speech recalls the sermon gag from MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN…”Blessed are the cheesemakers?”) in those pre-electric amplifier days. But Kinnear shows us that Hunt was not without his faults. We see the vanity in his flashy signature garb (he must have his white coat and hat) and an ego touched with hubris (he truly believes that only his presence can stop any hint of violence). Other stand-outs include Moorst as the PTS-plauged (not a diagnosis then) veteran Joseph, his eyes always squinting, his face pinched as though awaiting the cannon blast. On the flip side is Johnson whose gleeful cruelty produces a twitching stammer as he plots to stomp out any revolt. Similarly Vincent Franklin as Magistrate Ethelston issues cruel judgements like a reptile spitting venom, even later as he rails against the “lower classes” while composing the Riot Act. These are bit a few of the terrific performances by this large gifted cast.

Writer/director Mike Leigh once again lauds and embraces the “working class”, giving them more nobility than their greedy abusive “betters” (the Prince Regent as played by Tim McInnery is a slightly smaller humanoid Jabba the Hut). But, as with the portrayal of Hunt, they’re not devoid of quirks and “warts”. Again, harkening back to BRIAN, there’s lots of infighting inside the movement as certain fractions get annoyed with more radical branches (“Imprison the King’s family!” quickly turns to “Behead the Royals!”). And naturally, there’s the old “green-eyed monster” as one of the event organizers is miffed that he won’t speak prior or post Hunt (though his angry retreat to the pub may have saved his life). Leigh orchestrates the big cast scenes with the same urgency as the intimate encounters inside the tiny cottages or in the corner of a barn. Plus he fills the atmosphere with a palpable sense of danger, the tension tightening as the planning builds to the momentous Monday. And then Leigh delivers with a sun-drenched nightmare full of carnage and chaos (every third woman seems to have an infant). Big kudos to the fantastic work by the crafts artists who make us feel as though we’re on those streets 200 years ago. A couple of scenes set in the cotton mills with all the machines spinning away at full scenes are simply jaw-dropping. Thanks to these talented men and woman PETERLOO is a vibrant history lesson that’s riveting and still quite relevant.

4 Out of 5

PETERLOO opens everywhere and screens exclusively in St. Louis at the Hi-Pointe Theatre and Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinemas

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.