Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
PETERLOO, UK, 2018. Starring Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Philip Jackson, Tim McInerny, Marion Bailey, Robert Wilfort, Karl Johnson, Sam Troughton, Alistair Mackenzie. Directed by Mike Leigh. 154 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and violence).
On hearing of Michael Leigh’s film, many will ask what is and where is Peterloo. Most will think of Waterloo. And, that is correct. This is the story of a battle in Peters Field in Manchester in 1819, gathering of citizens demanding their rights, set upon by the military, swords drawn, a massacre. In the aftermath, the journalists of the time were conscious of the victory at the Battle of Waterloo and the defeat of Napoleon, 1815. They coined the name for this massacre, Peterloo.
Director, Mike Leigh, comes from Manchester and has explained that this battle was not treated in history in his school days. Leigh has manifested social concern in his films, beginning in 1971. While the majority of his films focus on ordinary people, ordinary homes, ordinary situations, expertly dramatised, based on Improvisations of the cast and his shaping the screenplay based on this experience, he has sometimes moved into 19th century history. This has been particularly the case with his portrait of Gilbert and Sullivan, Topsy-turvy, and his portrait of the painter, Mr Turner.
This must be the first time that Mike Leigh has directed battle sequences. They have been expertly choreographed, the audience immersed in the massacre, the camera in the middle of the action, with the people, their fright, fleeing, being struck and beaten, the military and the yeomen overpowering on their horses and with their weapons, swords drawn.
However, that is the last part of the film. For two hours or more, the audience identifies with the citizens of Manchester and the surrounding towns, the experience of social oppression, the arrogance of the aristocracy and landowners, their place in the parliament and the lack of representation of the ordinary people, the passing of corn laws forbidding corn to be imported into England with subsequent and widespread hunger.
As always with Mike Leigh’s films, audiences are introduced to a range of characters, experience their interactions, listen to their anxieties. The film recreates the atmosphere of Manchester at the beginning of the 19th century, the scenes of the effects of the industrial revolution, the mills and the looms, the adults and children in something of long and hard labour. Then there are the speechmakers, the socially concerned, groups of people listening, the urgency for some kind of action.
By way of contrast, there are scenes in parliament with the awarding of financial grants to the victorious Duke of Wellington, the Tory parliamentarians in fear of sedition in the north, remembering, in fear, the recent French Revolution, sending military commanders (although the commander absenting himself on the day of the massacre at the races), the use of informers.
Meanwhile in London, landowner Henry Hunter give speeches critical of the government and is asked to be the chief Speaker at the meeting in Manchester. He is something of a toff in his manner but earnest in his politics. He speaks at the rally, wants no violence (but was arrested and spent time in prison).
There has been a lot of comment on the screenplay and the dialogue. Leigh has based his screenplay on speeches from the time, verbatim, Parliamentary, harsh judgements of magistrates in Manchester, the enthusiastic speeches from the speakers of the day. Which means that there are a lot of words passionately spoken, in different accents. Some audiences, more attuned to fast action rather than listening to words, have found the film too heavy. Some critics outside the UK have wondered about the relevance of the story with which they are not familiar.
However, audiences interest in politics and social justice, in 19th century British history (and Dickens and his justice novels were soon to be published), will probably identify strongly with Leigh’s point of view, admittedly partisan and strongly so.