Director: Mike Leigh
Stars: Rory Kinnear, Neil Bell, Philip Jackson
Four years on from his superb portrait of the life of Mr Turner, Mike Leigh returns with another artful depiction of British life in the early 19th century, presenting us an epic study of civil disobedience and underhand parliamentary clout.
On August 16th 1819, a democratic march culminated in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, where venerated public speaker Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) addressed the crowd on the subject of reform following the government’s increasingly unpopular austerity measures. The peaceful gathering was then set upon by armed troops on horseback corralled by alarmed and vindictive members of parliament. Scores were injured and more than a few killed. The incident – a massacre – was dubbed Peterloo by the press.
Prestige British period pieces are ten-a-penny and are often neutered by the stranglehold of blustery melodrama or the smothering sensation of being little more than bait for little gold statues. Leigh has proven himself adept at sidestepping such encumberments, and so it goes again here. In a mode similar to that of Terence Davies, Leigh strives for an authenticity that seems indifferent to outside approval (though frequently obtains it). His is a calmer, more studied approach, and stretches of Peterloo have the feel of considered reconstruction rather than haughty dramatisation.
Though his characters are themselves often filled with bluster (large swathes of the film are given over to impassioned speechifying), Leigh seems just as interested in the metronomic tick of the time period, the pulse of its people. So we spend time with band members practising on the moors, or else the camera appears distracted by the (admittedly fascinating) workings of mechanical looms in the factories, or the manual apparatus of a printing press.
Leigh has also established himself as a director able to depict residents of our northern counties without descending into crude caricature. Many of those depicted in Peterloo live in uncomfortable poverty, but the film doesn’t make unnecessary hay out of such circumstances, and the trope of the ‘comedic peasant’ is barely evidenced. His people are driven and articulate. Only once does the picture descend marginally into Loach-style salt-o’-the-earth sentimentality (over the literal breaking of bread).
A majority of the running time is given over to investigating how a grassroots movement would swell in an age long before our more instantaneous methods of communication. Yet, while 200 years may have passed, Peterloo feels remarkably prescient. In the age of Trump and Brexit, we are living in a time of protest and division. The main difference here is that these were physical meetings, lending them greater cinematic depth than a heated Facebook comments section or Reddit thread. It’ll be interesting to see how future cinematic historians dramatise those.
This is an ensemble piece that leisurely builds toward one fatal day and is not beholden to a sense of impending doom or the suspense of coming bloodshed. This isn’t 13 Assassins in the north of England, and shouldn’t be approached as such. When the riot does break (a little way into the film’s third hour), Leigh captures it with a suitable sense of chaos and disorder. It’s all hats, hooves and dust. Gratuity isn’t a concern either; despite the brutality, the sequence is relatively bloodless and the film has secured itself a 12A certificate as a result. Nevertheless, the point is made.
And yet, it feels like something is lacking, something keeping Peterloo from greatness. The timeliness of Leigh’s warning is on point; performances and production values are at a peak, and Dick Pope’s photography and lighting are absolutely impeccable. Still, there comes a feeling of “Is that it?” Perhaps the film closes too abruptly and might’ve fared better had the aftermath been investigated as thoroughly as the organisation?
Perhaps the sense of disappointment really comes from recognising that, despite the controversy stirred up by these events at the time, we’ve seemingly learned little from them…