Film review: Peterloo is a massacre that speaks to today

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.

Symbolic gestures

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.

★★★★☆

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Source: Film review: Peterloo is a massacre that speaks to today

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Mike Leigh’s historic drama Peterloo to premiere in the same place the 1819 massacre took place 

Maxine Peake (above) stars as one of the 80,000 Northerners who gathered in August 1819

Maxine Peake, the star of Mike Leigh’s new historical drama Peterloo, addressed a Manchester crowd gathered to pay tribute to the film’s bloody political battle.

Peake, 44, made an impassioned speech to crowds gathered to commemorate the massacre which occurred on the same date and in the same place, 199 years ago.The English actress, who stars as Nellie in the film, called the massacre ‘an outrage of which humanity recoils with horror and which is a foul stain upon our national character [ . . . ]

'How inspired and generous of the Festival to screen Peterloo in Manchester, where it all happened! I'm truly delighted!' Mike Leigh, who is a native of Salford, said
Director Mike Leigh

Source: Mike Leigh’s historic drama Peterloo to premiere in the same place the 1819 massacre took place | Daily Mail Online

Peterloo Trailer: Mike Leigh Recreates the 1819 Massacre

Down with the Corn Laws!

After his 2014 masterpiece Mister Turner, low-fi leftist legend Mike Leigh is back with what looks like another masterful re-creation of early 19th-century Britain. His new subject is the 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, in which local authorities called for a cavalry charge to disperse radical reformers protesting undemocratic representation and widespread famine caused by the infamous Corn Laws. At least ten people were killed, with hundreds more injured, and the event soon became a rallying cry in the campaign to bring the vote to the working class. If you didn’t learn about this in school, it’s because they don’t want you to know [ . . . ]

Continue reading at THE VULTURE: Peterloo Trailer: Mike Leigh Recreates the 1819 Massacre

Mike Leigh’s ‘Peterloo’ Eyes Fall Festival Run & Theatrical Release

Amazon Studios marketing and distribution boss Bob Berney revealed that Mike Leigh’s Peterloo will be making a play at the fall film festivals with an eye on a November theatrical release.Pic follows the 1819 Peterloo Massacre where British forces attacked a peaceful pro-democracy rally in Manchester.  Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Neil Bell, Philip Jackson, Vincent Franklin, Karl Johnson, and Tim McInnerny star.Leigh is a seven-time Oscar nominee for movies including Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake, Happy Go Lucky and Another Year [. . . ]

Continue reading at: Mike Leigh’s ‘Peterloo’ Eyes Fall Festival Run & Theatrical Release | Deadline

Lesley Manville on Her New Sitcom Mum, Her Phantom Thread Fans, Time’s Up, and More 

Lesley Manville is surprised when I tell her that her character in Phantom Thread, Cyril, became a queer Internet icon this year, the subject of fan fiction in which she runs off with Daniel Day-Lewis’s love interest, Alma. “Listen, I’ll take it. But no, I don’t follow anything like that. So there’s this whole other world going on that I know not of.”Yes, Manville speaks in such poetic turns of phrase, and it even makes some sense, given that she eschews, as she says, both the Internet and social media. When I apologize for being tired after working my first Met Gala during our conversation last week, she says that when she sees the pictures every year, “I can’t help but think of all the money that it costs that those people have spent on those clothes.” Later, she jokes, “I’ll never get an invite now, will I?

”You wouldn’t guess that we’re supposed to be talking about, on the surface, one of her most anodyne roles, as Cathy in the BAFTA-winning British sitcom Mum, about a very typical English middle-class woman turning 60, and confronting a new phase of life after the death of her husband. But Manville, as in all of her roles, including Cyril, and as the muse of U.K. director Mike Leigh (in whose 2010 film Another Year she stunned as drunk divorcée Mary), has a history of subverting the “good mum” stereotype. Even while clad in her best Marks & Spencer florals, Manville brings a wryness to Cathy, a role in which she says, “In its ordinariness there is a subversiveness . . . You may look at somebody who outwardly seems quite level, and plain, and straightforward . . . But you see that twinkle in her.”

Cathy is caught in a will-they-or-won’t-they tangle with friend Michael, played by Peter Mullan (of Westworld and Ozark); the romance is what Manville says made season two of Mum so popular in the U.K. (It has just been made available in the U.S. on Mother’s Day on Britbox, ITV, and the BBC’s American streaming service.) And Manville’s real-life former marriage to actor Gary Oldman, with whom she was up for an Academy Award at the Oscars this year, proved to be gossip fodder in the press, as well as more fuel for Manville/Cyril fans, who see the actor and the character as champions for single ladies everywhere (Manville is currently unmarried).

During our conversation, Manville gave very demure, very British answers to questions on her relationship with her famous ex, the #MeToo movement, and whether or not Cyril would have attended fashion’s night out (answer: as a stylist), and talked bringing a bit of badness to Mum. An excerpt from that conversation, below:

There is a rash of shows and books at the moment about mothers as antiheroes, you know, mothers who smoke and drink, mothers who have sex lives. Mum feels almost subversive because it’s not trying to do that. It’s very traditional.

Making Cathy a real, whole person is my job. I have to make her believable. It’s interesting that in its ordinariness there is a subversiveness; there is a subversive feeling about it. I think that’s because if you met her in the supermarket, you’d just think, Oh, she’s this very ordinary woman, but of course, nobody’s ordinary. We’re all exceptional. And you may look at somebody who outwardly seems quite level, and plain, and straightforward, but of course, she’s got the most gorgeous sense of humor herself, which is why she is able to absorb all of the stuff around her and kind of just keep it to herself. And she’s not judging anybody. She’s not making them feel bad about themselves, she’s being supportive, but you see that twinkle in her

And what’s great is that the only person that she can sometimes share that twinkle with is Peter Mullan’s character, Michael. The audience thinks, Oh, come on, you two. You’ve got to get together because you’d have such a great time. You’d laugh so much. All of my friends have been going, “Oh, I can’t bear it. I can’t wait to see what happens.” It just gets so good. Peter Mullan, just, oh my goodness. You keep watching it because he will tear you apart. That’s why, even though season one was successful in England, season two has just gone through the roof, and it’s been the most enormous and surprising hit, and narratives about this middle-aged couple falling in love, but it’s so human and touching [ . . . ]

Continue at VOGUE: Lesley Manville on Her New Sitcom Mum, Her Phantom Thread Fans, Time’s Up, and More – Vogue