Peterloo

 

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A long film which calls for a longer than average review.


Peterloo

  

Mike Leigh has already given us two works set in the 19th century but his new film Peterloo set in 1819 stands apart from them. Both Mr Turner (2014) and his piece about Gilbert and Sullivan (1999's Topsy-Turvy) were biopics whereas Peterloo, as the title suggests, is about an event and about the conditions that led up to it. As such, Leigh offers us a film that can be considered a report on the state of the nation and, if the film is even richer than one might have expected, that is because life in Britain almost two hundred years ago contains so much that is relevant today.

 

Peterloo was the name given to the horrendous occasion when a large unarmed gathering in Manchester's St. Peter's Fields was so violently dispersed by the cavalry and yeomanry militia that it left fifteen dead and over six hundred injured. The crowd had assembled to hear a noted orator, Henry Hunt, speak on the need for universal suffrage and the issue of representation had come to be seen as a way to bring about social change aiding the lot of the working classes whose labour was being exploited. Not least in Lancashire their poverty was such that the new Corn Laws banning cheap grain from the continent were drastically adding to their hardship.

 

The violence used against these people at Peterloo (the name coined at the time came from making play on that of a recent battle, Waterloo) is an historic event less well known than it should be and Leigh's film sets out to correct that. Consequently, it is epic in length (154 minutes) and a social portrait that requires an ensemble cast. Actual historical figures naturally appear, ranging from those in authority (such as the Prince Regent, Lord Sidmouth the Home Secretary and General Sir John Byng) to those who, without always being united in their views, fought for change, among them John Knight, John Thacker Sexton and Samuel Bamford. Hunt, another real life figure, stands somewhere between these two groups, an outsider known as a fine speaker who supported the need for change but who, as presented here, was somewhat puffed up and narcissistic despite the genuineness of his views.

 

However, because Peterloo is about the way in which ordinary working class people were living at the time, Leigh very reasonably and most persuasively gives us many scenes in which a fictional but representative family are shown living together. Maxine Peake is well cast as the mother, but this is not made into a starring role and not even Rory Kinnear who plays Hunt is seen in that light, distinctive though that character is. Everyone is encouraged to play as a part of the broader canvas of events, events that evoke the present day in that Peterloo shows how the establishment works for its own ends seeking to ignore the voice of the people and reaches us at a time when respect for politicians in this country is for good reason virtually non-existent.

 

To present an historical portrait of this kind is something very rare in cinema and something that needed the self-evident commitment of Mike Leigh because it is not an endeavour of obvious commercial appeal. In this day and age it is much easier to sell an action movie and the poster for Peterloo understandably hones in on the massacre. This is, of course, what provides the film with its climax, but it is uncharacteristic of the whole that quite properly incorporates many scenes of talk including political meetings. Some critics have found these wearying but in fact they are crucial to the enterprise and well judged (if any part of this long film needs shortening it is to my mind that showing the people starting to gather on the fatal day since at that point the viewer is expecting to see the climactic events themselves).

 

For that matter, I do have some other minor reservations. I knew in advance that the crowd put down were unarmed so was rather surprised to find that ahead of the event some of those eager to protest were advocating violent action. On the day itself there was a separate issue over the desirability of having some arms in the crowd as a protective measure, but the earlier plotting was something else altogether and led to arrests as we see. However, if the banners demanding Liberty and Fraternity would set the tone, others are seen representing that conflicting viewpoint and carrying the slogan Liberty or Death. Peterloo shows this but left me confused as to how this element fitted in.

 

Another issue was on my mind as I set out for the screening, namely the extent to which those in power might emerge as caricatures.  Leigh's weak point has always been his tendency to portray the upper classes in an exaggerated way and, with a few exceptions here and there, the authoritarian figures in Peterloo do emerge as extremists. However, only once did I feel that Leigh was pushing things too far (given the upper class attitudes of the time the extremism depicted here does not seem unrealistic, especially when one remembers that the fear and distrust seeded by the French Revolution persisted so strongly).The film's penultimate scene shows the Prince Regent approving the violent action taken in Manchester as an apt means of restoring what he calls tranquility: he may have used that very word but Leigh as writer makes play with it in a manner that feels contrived and is particularly out of place following on immediately after the portrayal of the massacre.

 

As for that big scene, Leigh handles it very competently but, if the fact that we know the outcome eliminates suspense and calls for something special to compensate, there is nothing here to compete in power with Eisenstein's classic portrayal of that most famous of massacres, the one set on the Odessa Steps and shown in the film Battleship Potemkin. However, Peterloo is not to be judged by its climactic scene but by its overall portrait of working class lives as shaped by political concerns in a past period. Bearing that in mind and also its character as an intimate everyday epic, it belongs to that rare breed of cinema exemplified by Ermanno Olmi's 1978 production The Tree of Wooden Clogs. Any weaknesses are relatively unimportant and Peterloo is an achievement of which Mike Leigh can be proud.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, David Moorst, Karl Johnson, Alastair Mackenzie, Neil Bell, Philip Jackson, Tim McInnerny, David Bamber, Sam Troughton, Dorothy Atkinson, Rachel Finnegan, Tom Meredith, Simona Bitmate, Robert Wilfort, John-Paul Hurley, Tom Gill, Lizzie Frain, Ian Mercer, Nico Mirallegro, Victor McGuire, Marion Bailey, Vincent Franklin, Jeff Rawle, Jim English, Joseph Kloska, Martin Savage, Leo Bill, Bryony Miller, Robert Gillespie, Lee Boardman, Paul Popplewell, Miles Richardson, Mark Ryan.

 

Dir Mike Leigh, Pro Georgina Lowe, Screenplay Mike Leigh, Ph Dick Pope, Pro Des Suzie Davies, Ed Jon Gregory, Music Gary Yershon, Costumes Jacqueline Durran.

 

Thin Man Films/Amazon Studios/Film4/BFI Film Fund-Entertainment One.
154 mins. UK. 2018. Rel: 2 November 2018. Cert. 12A.