The story of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre where British forces attacked a peaceful pro-democracy rally in Manchester.
Director: Mike Leigh
Writer: Mike Leigh
Stars: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Neil Bell
Closed Captioning and Descriptive Narration Available
Mike Leigh’s “Peterloo,” about a notorious episode of political violence, is for most of its running time a riot of verbal eloquence. One of the characters, Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), takes “Orator” as an honorific, like “Reverend” or “Doctor,” but his rhetorical gifts hardly set him apart. High-flown phrases pour from the mouths of activists at meetings, judges on the bench and politicians in the halls of Parliament. Orotund syllables drip from the mouths of government ministers, military officers and property owners in private consultations. Radicals rouse the rabble with vivid images of oppression and fiery exhortations to revolt.
Every so often, someone will remark that the time for talk is past, that what is needed now is action. But part of the argument of this brilliant and demanding film is that words are deeds, that language matters. Language is a weapon in the arsenals of power and resistance alike, and if you listen closely to the motley idioms and accents that fill the soundtrack (punctuated and underlined by Gary Yershon’s musical score), you can hear the currents of history moving.
This is not just a matter of accuracy with respect to the look and sound of the past, though Leigh and his crew see to that with characteristic artistry, as they did in “Topsy-Turvy” and “Mr. Turner.” The production and costume designers (Suzie Davies and Jacqueline Durran) and the director of photography, Dick Pope, create a plausible, breathing picture of England in 1819, and Leigh’s script takes pains to capture the texture of the time. Surely this is as close as we can hope to come to experiencing what people saw and how they spoke in various corners of Regency society, from the royal boudoir to the taverns of Manchester.
But the past, if it is a foreign country where people do things differently, is also a mirror. We can see our own world in its contours if we look from the right angle.
On Aug. 16, 1819, in St. Peter’s Field near Manchester, at least 16 demonstrators were killed — trampled by horses and run through with swords — by military and constabulary forces. The protesters, 60,000 to 80,000 strong according to contemporary estimates, marched under a broad banner of reform, demanding expanded suffrage, tax relief and repeal of the trade-inhibiting Corn Laws.
The march, forever after known as the Peterloo massacre, comes at the end of the film, which begins on a different battlefield a few years earlier. A young bugler, Joseph (David Moorst), wanders through the carnage of Waterloo before making his way home to Manchester. Meanwhile, the prime minister, Lord Liverpool (Robert Wilfort), heaps praise and public funds on the victorious Duke of Wellington. The home secretary, Lord Sidmouth (a marvelously vulpine Karl Johnson), worries that the forces unleashed by the French Revolution will survive the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. The threat of insurrection is especially dire in the North of England.
In some ways, the plot of what follows could not be simpler. The disaffected residents of Manchester — owners of small businesses, intellectuals and weavers toiling in the newly mechanized mills — plan a mass meeting. The defenders of the status quo, in government and private enterprise, calculate their response. A great many arguments ensue.
But Leigh’s narrative is touched by the literary spirit of the later 19th century. “Peterloo” has the sweep of Tolstoy and the bustle of Dickens. It’s crowded with noble, villainous and comical characters: police spies and magistrates; radical firebrands and anxious liberals; pompous officials and plain-spoken workers; servants, tradesman, gossips, thugs and children. The prince regent himself (Tim McInnerny). Every one carries a spark of individuality. Every voice and face is something to remember.
The movie is equally packed with ideas — about strategy and tactics, ends and means, liberty and order. Through the mist of ideology and the fog of oratory, the sharp outlines of modern politics become visible. There are two sides, those who demand reform and those who oppose it, but each side is crosshatched with factional and temperamental schisms. Orator Hunt’s main cause is his own ego, and it’s his celebrity that brings out the crowds. Among his fans are city businessmen who see universal suffrage as a way of bringing a share of political influence to a middle class whose economic influence is growing. The workers see the vote as a steppingstone toward full social equality. While the organizers insist on nonviolence, a group of younger militants (egged on by an agent provocateur in the pay of the home secretary) dreams of armed revolt and regicide.
The specter of Jacobinism — of the guillotine and the mobs at the Bastille — haunts Britain’s rulers, from the prince regent to the owners of Manchester’s factories. But they, too, have their quarrels. Should they offer modest improvements in wages and political access in the hopes of quieting popular fury? Or should they respond with force?
As it happens, the state and its agents both take control and lose it. The violence in “Peterloo” arrives swiftly and grimly. The chaos of the climactic minutes stands in brutal contrast to the decorum that has come before. For most of the movie, even when tempers flare and passions burn hot, a certain courtesy prevails. This civility, though, serves as both screen and scaffolding for the cruelty that is the society’s organizing principle.
Like many great works of history, “Peterloo” has a point of view — you might even say a grudge. Leigh’s sympathies lie with Joseph, the bugler, and his family, particularly his parents, Nellie (Maxine Peake) and Joshua (Pearce Quigley), whose suffering seems to lie beyond the reach of any political rhetoric. The way they are portrayed edges close to sentimentality, but the honest sympathy the film extends them is the element that gives the wider tableau its clarity and force. The concerns and causes that for most everyone else provide occasions for speechmaking are, for these people, a matter of life and death.
– A.O. Scott, New York Times