I’m fully behind everything PETERLOO as a film stands for, and with individual liberties under threat ever more stories like this have become vital. Unfortunately I found the the manner in which Mike Leigh tells this story deeply frustrating.
Lancashire, 1819. In a period of economic and social upheaval following the Napoleonic Wars, a massive peaceful protest advocating Parliamentary reforms was organised on Manchester’s St Peter’s Field. The people of one of England’s most populous northern counties demanded fair representation, but those in power saw a mass gathering of such a number of the lower classes as a great threat and took extreme measures to disperse them, to disastrous effect.
The smaller “Mike Leigh” moments, like the protesters chatting about which towns they’re from and how far they’ve walked as they wait for the big speech, are great. But there’s just not enough of them. The film is two and a half hours and yet I never thought I knew these characters.
When people aren’t speechifying they’re stopping scenes dead to explain the Corn Laws. Mike Leigh’s method uses character workshopping extensively to produce natural conversation, but here the artifice is clear and nothing rings true. Nobody in the ensemble gives a bad performance, but they all struggle to give their characters more than a single dimension. Maxine Peake’s Nellie and her family (not given a surname) are dignified in their poverty, Rory Kinnear’s Henry Hunt is an impassioned self-promoter, Neil Bell’s Samuel Bamford enjoys any cause that gives him an excuse to be a loudmouth.
The antagonists are most effective if you see them as political cartoons made flesh. The cabal of brutal magistrates are particularly good value for money (especially the shouty Vincent Franklin) though they perhaps belong in a different film, maybe a Dickens adaptation.
The film does get a lot better as it matches on. Once the crowds and the banners finally reach St Peter’s Field you can really feel the story start to thrum with the power it was previously lacking. The last forty minutes or so of Peterloo has momentum.
The desired electoral reforms were well worth fighting for. At the time the populous northern districts of Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Oldham and the surrounding areas had to share two county MPs between them. With no direct representation and only privileged landowners able to vote, the vast majority of the population of Lancashire were without a voice. The people of Manchester simply wanted the government to give serious consideration to the election of their own representative. The magistrates’ grasp of what actions were illegal (actually electing an MP without the king’s consent, not just talking about it) was ironically tenuous. The assembled crowd were only ever meeting to “consider the propriety of adopting the most legal and effectual means of obtaining a reform of the Common House of Parliament”.
It’s funny the things Leigh chose to leave out. There was an (unused) artillery unit at St Peter’s Field, and showing this would have been a very easy way to communicate the overreaction of the English establishment to the people rising up. Leigh also calls his story to a close immediately post-Peterloo, not covering the riots in Manchester that raged into the night (arguably a more justifiable reason for military supression) and he does not furnish his audience with any contextualising information in summary. Leigh has stated that ending on facts and figures would have lessened the emotional impact of the piece, and it doesn’t really fit with his usual naturalistic style. And yet, he opens with text setting up Waterloo and little else in his film is truly naturalistic or honestly emotional.
Peterloo stumbles on the march and Mike Leigh overreaches himself. I’m pleased that I’ve finally seen a Mike Leigh film on the big screen (though I wish it had been this one) and that I now know how pivotal an event Peterloo was. But this story deserves a better vehicle, one with more nuance, real emotion and clearer communication of facts. SSP