As occasional cannon fire explodes around him in the final moments of the battle of Waterloo, a young, British soldier looks blankly around him and blows his bugle, clearly shell-shocked. This opening scene is echoed at the end of the film when the same soldier stands perplexed in St Peter’s Field in the midst of an inexplicable massacre. It’s one of the neat details that make this such a thoughtful and coherent work by Mike Leigh. The massacre, given the name Peterloo, is the climax of the film, and its inevitability generates tension throughout, but it’s really a plot driven by characters.
Leigh has created a Dickensian cast, from absurd, eccentric dignitaries to vociferous activists to unassuming, poor but loving families, all with wonderful dialogue to match. It’s beautifully photographed and the intricate sets suggest a deference to authenticity. The storytelling is logical and well-paced, and the lengthy two and half hour running time passes painlessly.
Though not especially graphic in terms of blood and gore, the final scenes are very confronting and sadly reminiscent of more recent historical atrocities.
Reviewed by Rita Bratovich.