“PETERLOO” — 2½ stars — Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Neil Bell, John-Paul Hurley; PG-13 (a sequence of violence and chaos); Broadway; running time: 154 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — You don’t have to be a studied historian to understand where things are going in “Peterloo,” but you will have to wait a while for the payoff.
Based on the true story of the 1819 massacre in Manchester, England, Mike Leigh’s film has plenty of things going for it, including a sharp period look that captures the bleakness of the time, but unfortunately, “Peterloo” is about 90 minutes of story stretched into 154 minutes of screen time.
“Peterloo” opens in the aftermath of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, as the Duke of Wellington’s allied forces defeat Napoleon. Back home, though, trouble is brewing in England, and the government is worried about signs of insurrection and sedition in Manchester.
But from the north, the perspective is a little different. Fed up with a lack of suffrage and proper parliamentary representation, the commoners in the Manchester area are rallying to petition the government. Small groups of citizens are heading up local meetings, and various grassroots leaders are rising to prominence.
Early on, a sequence of court hearings paints an awful picture as a lineup of poor citizens are given massive sentences for comparatively minor crimes. Behind the scenes, the local government loathes the unwashed masses, conspiring with the landowning elite to sustain their lives of privilege.
Still, the momentum and support for change continues, and local radicals and activists see an opportunity in Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), a wealthy landowner who is an outspoken proponent of universal suffrage. When he accepts an invitation to speak at a Manchester rally, the upcoming event sets the stage for a dramatic clash between oppressor and oppressed.
A large portion of the film — the buildup to the third-act finale at the rally — includes numerous meeting scenes where activists work through dramatic and eloquent speeches on behalf of God-given human rights. At one point, during an informal outdoor meeting in the countryside, we see three such speeches given in sequence — in their entirety. While there’s nothing wrong with a good movie speech, in “Peterloo” we wind up with way too much of a pretty good, but not great thing.
It would help if the story offered a bit more in terms of character development. Rather than zero in on a specific protagonist — Hunt might be the closest thing to the job — “Peterloo” takes more of an ensemble approach, weaving through a host of supporting characters to paint as many perspectives on the story as possible, but as a result, we get little more than fleeting glimpses overall.
The apparent design is to build everything to the dramatic finale, which, while considerably more dramatic than what precedes it, still feels a little methodical and unfulfilling, and “Peterloo” ends with a somber abruptness that even lacks the traditional end credit titles to let the audience know what happened in the tragedy's aftermath.
It’s possible the ambiguity of the ending is meant to further allude to our day, since it doesn’t require much reading between the lines to see the parallels in class conflict and other related issues in play. But the sum total is a historic drama that won’t make much history itself. “Peterloo” nods toward the powerful impact of its source material but lacks the follow through to truly capture its pathos.
Rating explained: “Peterloo” is rated PG-13 for some violent mayhem, including stabbings, and some brief profanity.