Peterloo, 2nd November 2018
I doubt that there has ever been a more carefully researched, painstakingly assembled or more vividly imagined “history” film than Peterloo. If you like Mike Leigh (I do) you are going to love this. If you like British social, economic and political history (I do) you are going to be very interested in this. If you are concerned about the brutality with which power can crush the legitimate appeals of the ordinary person, (you should be wherever you sit in the system), this is going to stir you. If you understand the power of oratory, (words are what turn ideas into action), then this is going to draw you in. If you like the cast, Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, Karl Johnson, Nico Mirallegro, Tim McInnerney, and especially Neil Bell and David Bamber, all stood out for me, but honestly this is a massive assemble of British acting at its best, then you will relish this.
However if you are after a satisfying personal drama, or complex plotting, then you might want to look elsewhere. Which given that this is a film that documents one of the darkest days in British history shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. (Mind you this wasn’t the only massacre of peaceful protestors in the first half of the C19, more followed in the 1830s, notably in Wales). There is a lot of talking, at the meetings called by the various political radicals and reformers in and around Manchester in 1819, between the founders of the Manchester Guardian and the firebrand liberal orator Henry Hunt who was invited to address the rally in St Peter’s Field, within the family of Joseph (the real life John Lees) which is the emotional centre of the film, between the moreorless vicious magistrates who look to Government to break the sedition and between the Home Secretary and the lackeys who do his business. In this way Mike Leigh shows us why the people of Manchester and their leaders sought reform, of representation, of taxation, of the punitive Corn Laws, and why the authorities became so fearful, and were so consumed with the threat that the radicals posed, that they wilfully sanctioned a cavalry charge by volatile yeomanry and troops into the innocent crowd of 100,000 crammed into a square with minimal exits.. It is also what ensures the universal relevance of the film and the events it portrays. The power of rhetoric and the paranoia of the State are constants in the human condition.
This final scene is as awful as you might imagine but Mr Leigh doesn’t overdo the sound and fury and cleverly links the massacre back t the field at Waterloo which opens the film and which gave the events their sobriquet. As so often with Mr Leigh the film is assembled from linked montages though here many of the scenes are splendidly expansive. The interiors especially, of the powerful and the dispossessed, of Parliament, magistrates houses, pubs, meeting houses, parlours, mills, are richly detailed. The moors around Manchester offer a wild, lyrical contrast to urban industry. I think I saw parts of Lincoln standing in for historic Manchester and, of course, Chatham Dockyard, the period film’s spiritual homeland.
This was the time when “entrepreneurial” capital was looking to the State to underpin its privilege at the expense of labour, the very struggle Engels was to highlight three decades later, when, despite apparent reforms, conditions for the working class had only got worse. Peterloo may have fired up the press in London and no doubt fuelled legislative change but, as the film shows, didn’t cause the mill-owners of Manchester to question their consciences.
Any other director, without the freedom that Mr Leigh has secured, (say thanks to all the producer money here, especially Amazon), would have been forced to compromise. There are one or two occasions when, maybe, just maybe, he might had left some of cinematographer Dick Pope’s stunning assemblies on the cutting room floor, but if he had then he wouldn’t be Mike Leigh and we wouldn’t have this film. And he has ben able to spend his handsome budget to create a film of incredible ambition. In addition to Mr Pope, I would also call out the work of costume designer Jacqueline Durran and her team, the set decoration of Charlotte Watts, composer Garry Yershon’s score and finally, and I might contend most importantly, historian Jacqueline Riding.
If you don’t see it at the cinema make sure to see it at home one day. It is “serious” and it is “important”, so clear the mental decks beforehand but it is richly rewarding and, shot through with humour, it is as entertaining as didactic gets.