A new film about the tragedy is ‘purest Mike Leigh in the best sense’ and ‘should resonate in the present, writes critic Caryn James.
Mike Leigh’s Peterloo builds toward a vibrantly realised moment based on British history. In 1819, when Manchester, England had no representative in parliament and the local economy was in shambles, 60,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Field for a peaceful demonstration, waving colourful banners and waiting to hear speakers for their cause. Before it had even started, the army was planning to shut the protest down.
On screen, soldiers on horseback wielding sabers tear through the crowd, slashing at anyone in their path: men, women and children. Leigh immerses viewers in the scene, lucidly carrying us into the crowd and its terrifying chaos. He tracks specific characters we have come to know as they cower from the riders or search for family members who have vanished from sight. In reality, 15 people were killed and hundreds injured. Some of the film’s fictional characters share their fate. Journalists of the day called the event the Peterloo Massacre, an allusion to Waterloo’s wartime carnage.
Peterloo is purest Mike Leigh in the best sense: class-conscious, beautifully acted and filmed and a call for social change. It is also, despite that kinetic battle scene, a film of ideas and political conversation, not action.
The historical problems Leigh’s characters confront are presented in exquisite detail, down to the sympathetic working class’s rotting teeth and the smug ruling class’s lace and finery. But the ideas are also designed to resonate today: an economy that short-changes workers, callous politicians without conscience or empathy, even an assault on truth and a defence of the journalism that might pierce the government’s lies.
As he has done when tackling other issues – abortion in Vera Drake, or race in Secrets and Lies – Leigh personalises those issues through his characters. The film begins at the Battle of Waterloo itself, explosions sounding while a young soldier named Joseph stands on the battlefield. In an extreme close-up, the film captures his blood-spattered face, his eyes bulging and staring in a disconcerting way. He makes his way home to Manchester, suffering from what would now be recognised as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
His poor, labouring family members are among the film’s central, fictionalised characters. They include his politically active father, grown siblings and their children, and his mother, Nellie. Maxine Peake (among only a handful of familiar actors) stands out as Nellie, who sells pies to earn a trifle of money and sees the need for reform, but is sceptical about the demonstration. Peake brings all that worry to the character’s face, but even with her, Leigh is not concerned about developing full characters. Joseph and Nellie are effectively used emblems.
Other characters are even less distinct, including journalists who arrive in Manchester to report on the protest. Some characters are in a single scene, including a servant who appears in court and is sentenced to hang for taking one of his master’s coats. That the master had two coats and the servant was cold is not considered an adequate defence by the judge.
The local magistrates and government representatives arrayed on the other side are even less defined, except by their shared condescension. Dismissing the lower class as “honest, gullible folk”, is the kindest word anyone in the ruling class has to say. They fear insurrection and decide they must keep the lower classes under their feet, bluntly stating that squelching the protest with violence will teach the upstarts a lesson.
In a brief but gleefully mischievous scene, the London ministers report on this trouble to the Prince Regent himself, played by Tim McInnerny as a bloated, vain, cartoonish narcissist with rouged cheeks. It’s hard not to see this bewigged caricature as Leigh’s nod to Donald Trump.
The ministers regularly distort the truth on the Prince’s behalf. When a potato is thrown at his closed royal carriage, the act is labelled a violent assault and used as another excuse to repress all protests. As the film moves between workers’ meetings in Manchester and the government’s preemptive plan to end the protest, Leigh creates a nightmare version of Downton Abbey’s upstairs/downstairs divide.
Straddling the two is Henry Hunt, a historical figure played by Rory Kinnear. A famous orator, he arrives in Manchester to speak out for workers’ rights. But he is also vain and snobbish, proof that political allies are not always the heroes you want them to be. Hunt’s presence and flawed character is the best evidence that the film won’t descend to simplistic versions of good and bad factions.
All of this is exquisitely shot by cinematographer Dick Pope. Along with Mr Turner and the delightful Topsy-Turvy, Peterloo is among Leigh’s most visually ravishing films. In chiaroscuro he depicts the dark browns inside the workers’ cottages, the light on their faces reminiscent of Rembrandt. Outside, there are wide shots of vast green fields in clear bright vistas, as a local militia prepares for battle. During the massacre, the red uniforms of the soldiers on horseback tower above the dull colours of the masses.
For all its strengths, there’s no denying that the film is talky. Joseph’s family debates whether the protest will be safe. In Manchester, some demonstrators want to carry arms, while others believe that will only provoke violence. The camera is fluid and active, so the scenes are never static. But all that dialogue may make some viewers restless during the 154-minute running time. The deliberate pacing is a risk Leigh is willing to take, as he holds back on the action and allows the conflict to simmer.
Some Leigh films are easy to like and others, such as Naked, with David Thewlis as a homeless brute, are more demanding. Peterloo requires viewers to accept the slow boil that leads to its explosive and sad end, but it is also the uncompromising work of a master.