Can You Hear the People Sing?

‘Peterloo,’ a Surprising Anti-Epic From Mike Leigh

An epic film from Mike Leigh? That’s like a political thriller from Judd Apatow. Yet in Peterloo, the English director sweepingly chronicles the events leading up to one of the most shameful incidents in 19th-Century British history. It’s a staggering accomplishment: completely unexpected, not entirely effective, but altogether extraordinary.

The Peterloo Massacre, according to the hivemind of Wikipedia, happened on August 16th, 1819, during a peaceful rally of 60,000 men, women, and children at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, England. The protesters demanded reform of parliamentary representation, and purposefully held the event on a Monday so people had to skip work that day to be there. Spooked by the vast size of such civil disobedience, the government sent in soldiers who quickly lost control over the crowd and themselves. They ended up killing 15 people and wounding 600 more.

The shit goes down in ‘Peterloo,” directed by Mike Leigh. 
Taking It Into His Own Hands

The 76-year-old Leigh, a Manchester native, was completely ignorant of Peterloo until he read about it in the 1970s. At the time, he was amazed that none of his schoolteachers had mentioned the local event, and no neighbors or friends were ever aware of it. He thought that someone should really make a movie to commemorate the tragedy. Just not him.

Why would he? It’s not his kind of subject. It’s off-brand. Leigh is best known for his searing, funny, masterful takes on contemporary working-class British life. In movies like High Hopes, Life is Sweet, Naked, and most famously Secrets & Lies, the filmmaker lays bare a warts-and-all look at humanity that’s hilarious, deeply empathetic and occasionally downright devastating.

His 1999 musical drama Topsy-Turvy was a sea change. For the first time in his career, Leigh tackled a period piece, in this case a biographical study of the Victorian-era light-opera superstar composers Gilbert and Sullivan, and accordingly ported over his keen talents for commensurate emotional and sociological insight.


PETERLOO ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Mike Leigh
Written by: Mike Leigh
Starring: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley
Running time: 154 min


 

He most recently returned to historical subjects with another biopic, this time about acclaimed 19th-Century painter J.M.W. Turner, in 2014’s masterful and hardly hagiographic study, Mr. Turner. And, when deciding his next project, Leigh realized that the 200th anniversary of Peterloo was coming up. So he tackled it himself.

In a way, Peterloo is an anti-epic. Maybe 15 of its 154 minutes depicts the actual event. The film otherwise devotes its attention to more than two hours of conversation and oration, rendered in all the different cadences and dialects of the time.

Is it riveting to watch people pontificate about their parliamentary rights in era-specific discourse? Sure, to a point. But that’s where the audiences for Peterloo will diverge. History buffs can add a star to this review. Casual moviegoers might take one away.

A Wee Bit Talky, Perhaps

I found so much dialogue, rendered in the myriad vernacular for which the UK is famous, both fascinating and a bit suffocating. It was also cinematic in a very specific sense, especially with such a hefty running time. Peterloo has dozens of speaking parts, and characters rooted in big events, but it’s not the spectacle people might be expecting. Think Robert Altman, not David Lean.

That said, Peterloo fascinatingly evokes history, specifically the transitional Regency era when spoiled, sheltered George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales, took control after George III’s mental incapacitation. This was a best-of-times, worst-of-times era. The rich and powerful savored their fortunes, while local printing presses fomented grassroots political resentment.

Parliament showered victorious military leaders like the Duke of Wellington with ludicrous amounts of lucre—millions in today’s currency—for service to his country. And yet the average citizen lived hand-to-mouth and had their rights trampled. Overzealous judges regularly ran roughshod over the weak. In Peterloo, one powered-wig buffoon gleefully delivers a death sentence to a destitute man for stealing someone’s coat. When a fed-up peasant throws a potato at the Prince Regent and smashes the window of his carriage, His Royal Highness shrieks and suspends habeas corpus.

High and Low

Leigh captures all of this and more with a sharp eye for details, like the deafening mechanical looms or a typesetter patiently slathering black ink onto his machine. He turns Peterloo into an absorbing ethnographic study of an analogue world, with handcrafted banners, eggs-for-tarts bartering, and plenty of walking. Oh good Lord, so much walking.

But Leigh doesn’t just keep his focus on the ground. He also has interesting things to say about the lives of the powerful. At its weakest, the film paints the Upper Class in almost cartoonishly villainous broad strokes. “We are their superiors!” barks one of the old white patriarchal magistrates as they all drink claret and watch the rally from on high. One of them even vainly reads the riot act out the window before calling on a saber-rattling, sloppily inebriated Yeomanry to attack the innocent.

But the burgeoning resistance has its own supercilious leaders, chief among them an abrasive, self-important gentleman farmer named Henry Hunt. His persuasive speeches earn him a rabid following, but his white top hat and natty attire make some call him a “Wiltshire peacock.” Local newspapermen, all well-meaning, also butt heads with one another and the organizers as their egos percolate. It’s delicious to watch them jockey for position in front of the crowd.

PETERLOO featuring John-Paul Hurley as John Thacker Saxton, Joseph Kloska as Richard Carlile, Victoria Moseley as Susanna Saxton, and Dorothy Duffy as Mary Fildes courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Peterloo lays bare how vanity not just fuels the worst impulses, but even corrodes the best intentions. As with all of his films, Leigh punctures the pretension in others and reveres modesty, however rare. It’s all about the small gestures, like when a dirt-poor mother offers a piece of her bread to two strangers who travelled miles by foot to be at St. Peter’s Field. She shows a steely strength in such kindness. It only deepens the outrage for what follows.

Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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