First, a history lesson: on August 16th 1819, at a pro-democracy demonstration in Manchester, a skittish militia charged with keeping the peace rampaged with sabres drawn into a crowd of some 70,000 unarmed people, killing 15 and injuring hundreds.
Though the crowd’s central demand – equal votes for all men – went unmet, Peterloo was part of a wave of radicalism that led 13 years later to the passing of the Great Reform Act, and the first tentative extension of the franchise to the working class.
This film, based on the massacre but with a reach far beyond it, is Mike Leigh’s best since Secrets & Lies, and perhaps including it too. Leigh knows the severity of his subject, and it shows in his camerawork: he films with a drained palette, the streets dark and dreary and the sky perpetually overcast. The atmosphere matches the sombre cinematography, growing more and more fretful as the action builds inexorably to the fateful demonstration. But Leigh also finds moments of incredible poetry amidst the poverty: crouched in a doorway, a homeless woman sings to herself as people walk obliviously by. Two women listen quietly to a troupe of fiddlers playing on the other side of a riverbank; unnoticed by the musicians, they begin to sway slightly, tapping their hands in rhythm. There is something profoundly moving about these scenes; set against the heavy misery of rainy, industrial Manchester, they assume an almost religious quality.
Drafted in as the demonstration’s star turn is Henry Hunt (played wonderfully by Rory Kinnear), a leading reformer who was imprisoned for two years for his role there. Hunt was known throughout the country for his rousing oratory, but he was a farmer, not a labourer, and Leigh is clearly sceptical of his radical credentials. In Kinnear’s hands he’s largely an unsympathetic figure, conceited and mildly disdainful of his northern comrades. “Bring me a light repast!” he demands on arrival at his Manchester lodgings, to which a servant murmurs: “What is that?”
In fact, uncommonly amongst films clearly sympathetic to a radical cause, Peterloo has no obvious hero. Instead, there is a mass of ordinary people (Maxine Peake is especially brilliant as the mother of a soldier returning from Waterloo), thrust into a world-historical moment and doing their best to act accordingly. Screen time is meted out like Soviet ration cards – by my (very rough) approximation, no character features in more than a third of the scenes.
This upending of traditional narrative emphasis is surely intentional, as is the insistent focus on workers’ bodies – their dirty faces and stained yellow teeth, their clumsy deference in the presence of their ‘betters’ (this includes Hunt, the prosperous southern landowner). The film’s title suggests that it will be a portrait of a massacre, and it is, but Leigh’s point throughout is that Peterloo was just one chapter in a very old story; one that is still unfinished, and has millions of protagonists.
If Peterloo’s hero is ambiguous, its villains are easily identified: a ruling class of greedy, bloated Lords and Ministers, who refuse to brook any tax reform for the poor but begin the film by gifting Lord Wellington a whopping £750,000 (£63m when adjusted for inflation) for his victory at Waterloo. They are led by the Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny), a preposterous figure who approves the massacre from a room full of exotic plants. There are no good guys on this side; the magistrates responsible for ordering the charge are largely animated by class-hatred, and the charging militia are shown getting drunk on the morning of the demonstration. Some might mistake this lack of generosity for a lack of nuance, and decide that it undermines the whole film. But not every character deserves to be treated with generosity, or every event with nuance. It’s important to remember that the protesters at Peterloo were fired upon for demanding only the most basic precept of liberal democracy (and not even that, since women were excluded from their petition).
What most struck me about Peterloo – what makes it a great film – is how deeply I connected to its characters, how closely I felt their struggle. For days after seeing it, I would catch myself thinking of them, mourning their loss, celebrating their courage. And not just one character, because that can happen with any merely good movie, but all of them, as individuals and as a mass. Few films can produce such an evocation, and in doing so Leigh has accomplished one of the highest purposes of art: to speak in the hearts of people far removed from us, and to have us hear them.
Source : CityA.M.