Mike Leigh, 2018, UK
With The evidence of ‘Mr Turner’ preceding this, it turns out that Mike Leigh has emerged as one of the premier artists of period cinema. 'Peterloo' follows the lineage of Bertolucci’s ‘1900’ or the work of the Taviani brothers. With almost every shot, it resembles classical portraits brought to life, people moving and living in those portraits on walls of national galleries. As with ‘Mr Turner’, occasionally there will be a vista of landscape to take the breath away, but it is never quite prolonged to give the jaw time to fall all the way ajar. In this way, the editing is fluid and never showy, never intruding on the acting or story or the impressive set design. And no matter how immersive the aesthetic, it is always secondary to the exemplary ensemble cast. But the opening is the notable exception.
From the opening shot, Leigh seizes the attention with the long take of Joseph (David Moorst) in the middle of the Battle of Waterloo, bemused, looking around at the carnage and explosions, trying to do his job as bugler even as it’s a wonder he isn’t killed. It is the one time the camera feels deliberately aware and subjective, circling him as if closing off any escape route. Here is a man being traumatised.
When he gets home to Manchester, it’s to vivid poverty and disenfranchisement. Indeed, the endless meetings seem like class war counsels. The locals are attending pro-democracy meetings and getting all fired up over trying to get the vote. This is an era where only 2% of the population had the vote and the new corn laws were causing starvation. And so cue the rich sitting at a banquet whilst the impoverished suffer and struggle to have agency.
As Peter Bradshaw summarises:
On 16 August 1819, at what we would now call a pro-democracy demonstration in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, an excitable band of cavalry and yeomanry – whose commander had airily absented himself for a day at the races – charged with sabres drawn into a crowd of 100,000 unarmed people, many of whom were unable to escape the enclosed space. The troops killed 18 and injured hundreds more.
The dichotomy is distinctly between the cruel and paranoid authorities and the down-to-earth working class poor united by righteousness. The dissenting argument is that the authorities are coloured too broadly, as caricatures, but this is surely endemic in polemical commentary. In George Cruikshank’s satirical ‘The Massacre at St. Peters, or Britons Strike Home’ (1819) the yeomanry are all plump and rosy-cheeked, flush with outrage and righteousness as they cut down the unfortunate protesters. This is even a feature of Richard Carlile’s more austere painting representing the scene (1819). Indeed, the yeomanry were often freeholders and tenant farmers themselves (having funds to buy uniforms, etc.).
On horseback, armed with sabres and clubs, many were familiar with, and had old scores to settle with, the leading protesters. (In one instance, spotting a reporter from the radical Manchester Observer, a Yeomanry officer called out "There's Saxton, damn him, run him through.")
This can be nothing else but anecdotal but is an illustration that broad and partisan have always defined the event. Since we know that the magistrates did indeed order the soldiers to let loose on the crowd, it is hard to imagine any portrayal that would not portray them as outright villains (well, not without going down a ‘Birth of a Nation’ route). Here, they act in arrogance, anger and chaos; conniving and sure of their superiority. The more moderate and mitigating magistrate voices are shouted down and side-lined for the rush to blustering authoritarianism.
When so many of our contemporary political figures seem cartoonish or behave like caricatures – just look around – it is perhaps a little limited to just dismiss Leigh’s characters as caricatures: the massacre is historical fact and it is quite believable that the boorishness and callousness of the authoritarians were to blame. The villainy is in their actions, regardless of their portrayal. When the massacre happens, it is shown as much the result of chaos and shouting as brutality. But yes, there is no doubt there is a good and bad side, with the latter scheming and misconstruing for fear of the workers and selfishness. Whether politics and political action has progressed is for debate.
‘Peterloo’s uniformly impressive ensemble cast populates this vast tapestry of period recreation and polemic. It’s cleanly and beautifully shot by Dick Pope and there is much detail to wallow in; but the constant talk and rhetoric may put some off and occasionally falls into exposition of history notes. Perhaps this is inevitable given the nature of the project, Leigh’s intent to give as much perspective as possible and how this has been a lesser known historical massacre. There are subplots of PTSD, disillusionment with one’s heroes, agent provocoteurs, the role of the media supplementing the bigger themes of the political scheming, infighting and class war, all funnelling into the final tragedy.
Perhaps there is a little repetition and a meeting or two too many, but Leigh lays down as many ramifications as he can so that when the massacre begins – the joyous and open feeling of the protesters in contrast to the outraged and bickering magistrates – all the details culminate to produce the appropriate horror. This final sequence does not use the rapid editing utilised to induce the facsimile of excitement as typical of action sequences, but rather speeds up its straightforward observations to clearly show the confusion and awkwardness of the atrocity on all sides. Hoards of extras run around as the horses and sabres crash in and all the groundwork laid beforehand is rewarded and crucial as the ramifications and the small stories and, most importantly, the individuals are not lost in the grand scale of the terror.
Such a film can be seen not only as a rendering of things gone by, but a direct warning of what is still possible in our current age where the political climate is so volatile and contentious, there’s an apparent ever-widening divide between the rich and poor and protest marches are regular and bigger than ever. As a film, it’s a brilliant piece of politicised drama where Leigh’s textured but unfussy vision offers a history lesson of outrage and empathy to those still struggling against inequality and oppression.