Rich Belbin reviews Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo. The film tells the story of a moment of British history that is too often forgotten.
16 August 1819 was a key date in the development of democracy in Britain. But as Mike Leigh notes, it isn’t one that is often taught in schools. The bloody massacre of eighteen people at a pro-democracy rally in a Manchester is largely ignored in school history, relegated far below the Tudors or WWII. Peterloo hopes to go some way to correcting this failure.
The film opens with a soldier, Joe, making his way back from the victory at Waterloo, a ‘high point’ for the British state. Suffering from PTSD, he makes it home to his family (led by Maxine Peake as Nellie), only to find them barely able to make ends meet. They are suffering under government-imposed austerity, not least from the Corn Laws, which priced grain and bread out of the reach of most working class families. Along with a large cast of other historical characters, the family discuss politics, and the relative merits of talk and action.
Over the next two and a half hours, there is a lot of talking. Leigh guides us through the rationale behind the Corn Laws, the debates on whether violence would be justified (by either the state or the protestors), whether to remain a ‘single issue’ campaign or a broader one, and of how class influences actions and opinions. Many of the speeches and discussions are taken straight from the historical record and others are clearly based closely upon such records. This gives them an authenticity we can admire, but it doesn’t always work dramatically.
Leigh traditionally works through long periods of improvisation with the cast, as each member develops their own character and their emotional responses to events. That is clearly not possible here, with so many famous speeches to be quoted, and unavoidable facts to be put across. As a result, too many of the speeches come across as simple exposition. The early scene describing the effects of the Corn Laws is very efficient at explaining the basic details, but has all the emotional impact of an adding-up book. Too often the level of detail actually distracts us from the story, rather than adding to it. It doesn’t have to be like this – the section in Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, where the villagers discuss land collectivization, shows just how such scenes can be developed to be involving, dramatic and still intelligible.
Alongside Nellie, many of the other Manchester activists are shown debating and organising. These include many working class activists, but centre around those working on the Manchester Observer, a radical liberal paper of the day. The key character for the democrats is Henry Hunt – a landed southern gent renowned for his amazing oratory, his white hat and his immense ego – a role Rory Kinnear clearly relishes. A pompous prig, Hunt isn’t interested in the voices of other people, especially if they go beyond the narrow confines of what he believes ‘the movement’ to be. So questions about the role of the monarchy, or even the Corn Laws, are to be put off in order to concentrate on getting the vote. Thus is the way of ‘radical’ liberals then and now. Hunt speaks vigorously against workers actually holding an ‘election’ at the rally itself, and even more strongly against workers defending themselves if the yeomanry attack, leaving the crowd ill-prepared for the violence that was to come.
In opposition to these voices sit (and they nearly always are sitting) the ruling-classes, the Prince Regent, Lord Liverpool the Prime Minister, and a collection of generals, magistrates and other ne’er do wells. All are portrayed as appalling caricatures of the weak and venal, with their stutters, wobbling lips and mouths full of marbles. Their disdain for and condescension to the rabble is woven into the very weft of their finely tailored clothing.
Leigh has never been good at creating upper-class characters – he’s not really needed to, as a rule – and I am sure some will enjoy the caricatures he has brought along for the ride. But caricatures they are. Blackadder style representations may be amusing in a half-hour comedy, but I found them wearying in a full length film. And when some of those characters do interact with the working-classes (most notably Oliver the Spy urging the demonstrators to take up arms), they come across as so buffoonish that the workers would have had to be idiots to be taken in by them. Unfortunately, reflections of other comedies came up later too, with Maxine Peake’s Nellie bemoaning the inability of those further back in the crowd to hear anything bringing back all too clear memories of the Sermon on the Mount scene from Life of Brian.
This is a shame, not just because of how it will diminish the chances of the film being properly used as a history of Peterloo, but also because there are hints at what might have been in the film. One scene has three defendants facing the court on petty charges. The statements from the magistrate need no additional absurdity. His words and his actions are enough: whipping, transportation to Australia and hanging are his remedies for petty theft and drunkenness.
Leigh does succeed in showing how the fight for universal suffrage wasn’t quite as universal as its middle-class leaders believed. From the obvious fact that it excluded 52% of the population straight off, to the differing interests of the working and middle classes (even if that difference seems centred on the middle-class using too long words). Comparisons with today, and the 98% (the percentage without the vote in 1819) feeling ‘left behind’ as they suffer under austerity, are not far from the surface.
But it is the final scenes, of the massacre itself, that raise the film above the made-for-schools level. As the crowds gather, we see the Yeomanry (volunteer soldiers, generally made up of the petty bourgeoisie, shopkeepers and the like) getting drunk and apparently treating the day as a jolly. The viciousness of the attack as they lay into the crowds is shocking. Even the regular army sent in after them are appalled (supposedly). The lack of blood (to keep that 12 certificate?) does little to lessen to horror as the bodies are cut down, including those of several people we have got to know during the film.
All in all, despite my misgivings, Peterloo may not be the film I wanted, but, as a reminder of how our rights are only won through bitter struggles, it is very much a film we need.