If Peterloo’s story sounds entirely new to its audiences, Mike Leigh won’t be surprised. Even in Manchester, England (the primary backdrop of Leigh’s new film), the state-sanctioned attack on 100,000 peaceful protestors rallying for political reform in the center of the city in 1819 remains a little known slice of history. At 2 hours plus, Leigh’s film is an exhaustive effort towards redressing that general ignorance around the massacre at St Peters’ Field, or Peterloo, as it came to be known in light of visual parallels to the Battle of Waterloo. At once sincere and severe, Peterloo is both a righteous broadside against top-down political rule and an overdue elegy for the lives lost: approximately eighteen men, women and children were killed, most of being slashed by sabres or trampled by cavalry horses in the pandemonium that broke loose when officials ordered local militia into the crowd of wholly unarmed protestors.
This is clearly a passion project, not just for Leigh – who grew up in the area – but also for star Maxine Peake, a staunch campaigner long active in efforts to memorialize the massacre. As expected, then, Peterloo’s after-taste is chiefly one of righteous, retrospective rage. Opening on an image of a lone shell-shocked soldier (David Moorst) staggering through the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo, Leigh sets us up for the first juxtapositional scene of the film. While the wounded and bedraggled Joseph (Moorst) trudges alone through embattled Europe towards his family home in Manchester, Parliament is in session to heap wealth and titles on Joseph’s commanding general, the Duke of Wellington. That contradiction – the rich getting richer on public money in spite of the desperation of the country’s poor – comes up again and again in the film: it’s there when the bloated Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny) drapes himself in decadence while Joseph’s mother Nellie (Peake) struggles to buy a handful of eggs, just as it is when Leigh intercuts scenes of families serenely marching for reform with images of their would-be attackers, boorish even without the gallons of ale they drink in preparation for their onslaught.
Until it reaches that climactic final set-piece, however, Peterloo is a film of words, rather than of action. Ever the socialist, Leigh ensures his film is split equally between his large ensemble, and we spend much of our time is spent in the offices of the Home Secretary (Karl Johnson), the magistrates and in the low-ceilinged pubs where Manchester’s radicals meet to hash out their ideological disputes. Leigh knows that most of his audiences will be coming to the film uninitiated in these debates – he has called for Peterloo to be taught in UK schools – so he has helpfully provided a Les Mis touch: a folk singer (Dorothy Atkinson) whose verses explain the economic depression the country is experiencing.
Some exposition is necessary in a film with as specific and obscure a subject matter as this, but at times, the dialogue jars, as in the moment one of Nellie’s daughters name-checks the famine-making Corn Laws as part of an otherwise casual family conversation. The same criticism of didacticism has been leveled at I, Daniel Blake, the similarly social justice-minded film by Ken Loach, Britain’s other joint-foremost social realist director. As in that case, however, discrediting Peterloo on the basis of some too-earnest exposition feels counter to the humanistic spirit the film has been made in, and which it largely succeeds in arousing in its audience.
For his part, Leigh displays a clear reverence for the work and traditions of Manchester’s newly industrial working classes: Peterloo includes several admiring long takes of the printing process, pie-making and mechanical looms at work. Dick Pope, who famously shot Leigh’s art biopic Mr Turner in the style of that titular painter, similarly shoots his subjects here in a palette and composition style that shares the general spirit of that period’s art.
In other ways, though, this does feel markedly different from Leigh’s typical style. It’s more overtly political, for one, and the humor is also less mortified and quotidian here (think of Another Year) than it is rooted in caricaturing the “gilded reptiles” that occupy Parliament and the throne. McInnerny’s swollen-tongued Prince cuts a particularly absurd figure, but Manchester’s magistrates are perhaps the most ridiculous of the lot in their barely-concealed enmity for one another and the people they serve. The reformers don’t escape the ribbing either, although Leigh maintains an exclusively punch-up attitude: gentleman ‘Orator’ Hunt (Rory Kinnear) is painted as haughty and out-of-touch despite his professed politics, while any laughs Leigh derives from Neil Bell’s slightly self-important working-class radical Bamford are much more good-natured in tone. (Although it’s worth noting that a comic-tinged meeting of the Female Reform Society vaguely feels like it plays to some misogynistic ideas about the inability of women to argue civilly.)
Parallels will undoubtedly be made with the world of today and, more specifically, with Britain’s current state. But for all the Brexit metaphor potential, Peterloo is best viewed with commemoration in mind over comparison. Leigh’s film will undoubtedly resonate deepest with viewers who feel a connection to its subject matter or its setting, and to that end, the casting here – mostly local actors from working class backgrounds, many of whom are familiar faces in the north following stints on northern soaps like Coronation Street – feels particularly fitting. Audiences who find themselves unmoved by Loach’s brand of righteous anger may find little appeal in Leigh’s transformed style of filmmaking here, but for viewers for whom the events at St Peters Field in 1819 take on a poignant weight, Peterloo will likely transcend its minor flaws. This is no Secrets and Lies, but it is a sincere, belated elegy that successfully brings into the light – after nearly two full centuries – a dark chapter of British history.
Peterloo will be released in UK cinemas on the 2nd of November, and in US theaters on the 5th of April 2019.