IT was a day destined to live in infamy. Tens of thousands had gathered at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester on August 16, 1819 to hear the great orator Henry Hunt ask for an extension of the vote.
The weather was grand, families were out in force, children excited. Then the order was given from on high to let loose the armed and drunken yeomanry on the crowd, sabres flashing. At least 11 people were killed and 400 injured.
One would not think it possible to make a dull film out of such events, but tip me over with a quill pen if Mike Leigh doesn’t give it a good go.
The director of Secrets and Lies and Mr Turner, opens promisingly with a scene at Waterloo. Bonaparte has been defeated and Wellington has been voted a £750,000 thank you by the House of Commons.
It is not Wellington we see among the broken bodies on the battlefield, however, but a lad, traumatised, lost, not knowing where to turn. There will be no pot of gold waiting for Joseph (David Moorst) at home. Or a job, or enough food to eat. When he eventually makes it back to Manchester on his own steam to his mother (Peake) he has nothing to his name save for his soldier’s uniform. With wages cut again at the weavers where his family work, times are hard and getting tougher.
The government of the day is concerned with the situation in Manchester and similar places, but only to the extent that they fear trouble for themselves. A “sickness” of insurrection is diagnosed in the north, and General Sir John Byng (Alastair Mackenzie) is sent from London to keep an eye on things. Also keeping watch are a band of spies and provocateurs. Leigh, on writing and directing duties, does well in capturing the grubby, oddly familiar, mood of the times.
There is no doubting who is in the right here. No shades of moral grey. No need to grab a foghorn and point out the good folk from the bad. Yet that is what Leigh does in a series of sledgehammer scenes and characters that tip into caricatures. To illustrate how the judiciary imposed terrible punishments on the poor for petty crimes, he has not one court scene, but three. Almost to a man, everyone who is not working class is so obviously a villain they might as well be twirling moustaches and tying maidens to railway tracks.
Even when someone in authority does speak up for the poor he changes again in an instant, or his voice is soon drowned out in the clamour of red-faced, sneering, hateful, monsters.
But the biggest problem by far with Leigh’s drama is his decision to depict in detail the meetings culture of the times, when workers would gather to hear the speeches of reformers. Again, one appreciates why it is important to show how the workers began to organise and have a voice. Yet speech after speech after speech makes one feel assailed, then bored.
The Peterloo Massacre is first and last a human tale. The part played by rhetoric is fascinating but in comparison to the events of that day it is essentially a footnote. We learn more about the suffering of the poor by watching Maxine Peake put a hand on the weary shoulders of her husband than in any number of flowery speeches. Similarly, though Hunt can certainly turn a phrase, it is his arrogance, his disdain for the working classes he champions, that speaks volumes. Peake and Kinnear, both superb and the reason why this review is three stars and not two, communicate all this through character, by showing rather than telling, which is, after all, the first job of any movie.
Such is the number of speeches, by the time Leigh gets to Peterloo, some two plus hours in, it will be a doughty cinemagoer who is not exhausted. Which is a great pity, because he does manage to capture the sense of chaos, fear, and sheer injustice of the day. What a missed opportunity.
Source : HeraldScotland