My notes on Mike Leigh’s historical drama Peterloo.
About half-way through Mike Leigh’s expansive historical drama about the 1819 protest meeting held in a Manchester square, which ended with what would later be called ‘a police riot’ as uniformed men attacked an unarmed crowd, some radical speakers are seized by the thuggish police, bustled into some cells, hooded and beaten. It’s not strictly the first violent scene Leigh has ever directed – several of his earlier movies have fumbling blows, though the viciousness is mostly verbal – but instills in the viewer an awareness that this particular film is going to force the director to expand his range and deliver a climax that counts as an action scene. In the event, Leigh does reasonably well by a simple recreation of the messy, bloody incident, which was as much a result of the ineptitude of the authorities as sheer malice … though it’s hard not to think Peter Watkins, Paul Greengrass or Kathryn Bigelow would have been the go-to choices to deliver a finale as shattering as it really needs to be to sell this bit of history – which ticked-off journalists decide to call the Peterloo Massacre after St Peter’s Field and the Battle of Waterloo – as a major incident on the road to reform.
When it comes to hissable Establishment villains, Leigh has never erred on the side of subtlety. The grotesquely powdered Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny), the fossilised Prime Minister (Robert Wilfort) and stroke-damaged Home Secretary (Karl Johnson), a roomful of venomous Mancunian magistrates (Jeff Rawle, Vincent Franklin, Philip Whitchurch, Martin Savage), and a seething deputy chief constable (Victor McGuire) are hateful caricatures of sheer awfulness, perhaps more horrible even than the similar brutes in Bill Douglas’s Tolpuddle Martyrs movie Comrades. Leigh seems to make pantomime villains of them all … until you remember the contemporary equivalents of these historical power-holding knaves, who you’d critique as cartoonishly ridiculous if they weren’t out there running governments and ruining lives. Equally clearcut are the noble downtrodden sufferers – the family of a bugler (David Moorst), who has walked home from Waterloo with PTSD. They grumble in a hovel about the way the corn laws affect the price of bread and would be comically token and expositionary if it wasn’t for Maxine Peake’s presence as the pie-maker who keeps her extended family going through hard times. Amid so many historical characters you can look up on wikipedia, the representative poor hardworking family are frankly conveniences – with the added, disaster movie-type certainty that one or more of them are likely to be among the dead or wounded come the end credits. If some of the dialogue took me back to O level history, then Leigh also has a knack for making the past come alive by taking the time to show a lost art – a factory full of mechanical looms, Peake making pies by hand, a workman inking the presses and cranking out newspapers.
In the middle are characters Leigh troubles to make believable, if not exactly likeable. The radical orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), who wears a white hat so he will stand out, talks a great game to a roomful of folk who agree with him but shudders when one or two try to engage him in conversation. An array of well-intentioned, vain, woolly-headed, unsuffering liberal reformers and journalists invite Hunt to speak on a specific local issue (Manchester, at the time, didn’t have a Member of Parliament) related to ongoing struggles for the extended franchise (for men) and properly representative democracy – and there’s a strand about John Thacker Saxton (John-Paul Hurley), the local activist who argues for bringing Hunt to town but skulks off to the pub when the great man refuses to have him share the hustings (and thus misses out on being arrested or massacred). Women – whom no one suggests should have the vote — get their own radical meeting, which grows fractious as middle-class speakers express themselves in language working women can’t understand – though one of many actual historical circumstances Leigh gets right which seem strange to contemporary sensibilities is the way that radical firebrands addressing disgruntled factory workers use references to scripture, the classics and ancient history to stir up passions.