Director: Mike Leigh
12A | 2h 34min | Drama , History | 2 November 2018 (UK)
Director Mike Leigh turns his attention once again to the toiling working classes of England, except this time they are in revolt and bloodshed is in the offing. Sprawled across a broader canvas than usual and with a sense of the epic, Peterloo is a handsomely mounted tale that reconstructs, from various viewpoints, the events surrounding the infamous 1819 Peterloo Massacre at St Peter’s Field in Manchester, where a rally demanding universal suffrage (for men at least) and an end to punitive corn laws that prevented cheap imports of essentials, turned into a massacre at the hands of local military forces. It is a sincere, serious minded, and even angry film that feels squarely aimed at this decade’s austerity politics. Though it is one of biggest, it is not Leigh’s best, however.
Large in scope and ambition thought may be, Peterloo doesn’t attempt anything new in its narrative approach; taking things slowly in chronological fashion with time spent with both ‘sides’ of the debate. We glide at various points back and forth between the perspectives of a politically-awakened and dirt poor Manchester family subsisting in a run-down terraced house under the guardianship of pragmatic matriarch Nellie (Maxine Peake), the oratorically brilliant but arrogantly elitist suffrage campaigner Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) and the effete and callous judges and constables of Manchester who sniff revolution in the air and plot to provoke and undermine the rally that they know is coming. We even drop in at the offices of a liberal Manchester newspaper which doubles up as a campaign meeting point for various figures in the suffrage movement; and those viewers who know their history will recognise this as the birth pangs of the Guardian newspaper. Women campaigners get a look in too and, when the rally turns bloody, many women fall alongside the menfolk. Left unmentioned by the film, with its documentary-like approach, is the wider ramifications of the bloodletting and the later reforms that did become concrete reality.
Leigh’s film is comprehensive in its scope, and the stakes and demands of all sides are clearly put forward so no viewer who has never heard of ‘corn laws’ will be leave the cinema any doubt of why these two sides are lining up against each other, but this requires a substantial amount of exposition which works against the naturalistic performances that Leigh is famous for getting out of his casts with his own unique rehearsal approach. Leigh’s script, which he wrote himself, also draws in broad brushstrokes, with some of the villainous politicians and lawmakers being so cartoonish I was wondering where the twirling moustaches were, whilst the working class folk are true salt ‘o the earth’ types. Tim Mcinnerny is so over the top as the Prince Regent it was as if he had been instructed to go back to his old Blackadder days. In the end, what really appealed to me about Peterloo, beyond the historical lesson that I was effectively given, was the superbly rich production design and art department work from Suzie Davies and Jane Brodie that effectively lays out for us the gulf between the rich and poor’s worlds from Manchester to London and from royal courts to workhouses, whilst giving a nice sense of there being grit under everyones’s fingernails (the scenes featuring old looms and printing presses were a particular delight). Leigh’s regular DP, Dick Pope, gives the proceedings an appropriately painterly feel.