As he approaches the twilight of his career, Mike Leigh, perhaps the best and certainly the most idiosyncratic of British filmmakers, has increasingly turned to history to explore his feelings about what it means to be English. His two most prominent historical films, Topsy-Turvy and Mr. Turner, dwelled on the world of the arts, offering Leigh a means of looking at his position on the vector of creativity. His latest, however, is bitingly political, even polemical. It addresses an incident that happened on August 16, 1819, in the city of Manchester. A peaceful pro-democracy demonstration was attacked by British soldiers dispatched by local leaders. Dozens were killed and hundreds injured. Dubbed “Peterloo” because of its temporal proximity to the fateful battle that defeated Napoleon and the fact that it took place on St. Peter’s Field, the event, according to Leigh, should be taught to every British school child, but it’s mostly been lost to time. With his usual scrupulousness, he shows how the massacre came about and what it means for today’s world.
Unfortunately, Leigh’s two-and-a-half-hour film seems likely to meet the same fate as the incident itself. Several months after it played theatrically in the UK, it is mostly forgotten, doomed by negative reviews from critics who normally champion Leigh. They found it wordy, boring, and nagging. Leigh has, of course, done political content before, but he never sacrificed the dramatic appeal of his peculiar method just to make a point. Here, he’s dry and academic, and yet for me, a Yank who happens to love history, it was a revelation as both exegesis and theater. Leigh’s actors speak in bountiful phrases that sound nothing like political speech today, and that may be the problem for most people. To them it sounds like the most opaque Shakespearean poetry, but apparently Leigh worked close with contemporary documents to get the language accurate, and what comes through is the kind of passion for engagement that is, in and of itself, dramatically compelling.
But, most importantly, Peterloo is an angry film, which makes it the opposite of boring in Leigh’s hands. Wellington’s soldiers return from their victory broken and disillusioned while their leader basks in material and public glory. Leigh focuses on one PTSD-wracked redcoat, Joseph (David Moorst), who returns not to a hero’s welcome, but to a family plunged into poverty by rising prices that the government seems ill-equipped to tackle. Eventually, the workers and farmers rise up and demand action, and the response is pure reactionary arrogance. The lords in London, rather than huddle to find a solution, immediately conspire to put down what they see as insurrectionary ungratefulness. Leigh throws us into meetings on both sides of the argument, and doesn’t spare us the lengthy speeches and explanations. It is one of the film’s singular strengths that the characters, even at their voluble worst, convey complications of personality that set the stakes. At the center is Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), one of the era’s great orators, who takes up the working man’s cause much to the delight of the people, though it is his pointed loquaciousness that makes him a lightning rod for conservative ire and focuses that enmity to no good end. It doesn’t help that Hunt is proud and smug.
The inevitability of the massacre is as certain as it would be in any disaster movie, and Leigh ratchets up the tension without resorting to specious musical or editing cues. But it’s the detail that is so effective: the troops, understanding their mission, getting drunk on the morning of the massacre; the nobility in their silly finery getting so worked up in their hatred for the hoi polloi they literally spit out their invective; the innocence of the “rabble” as they assemble in the field to hear a fine speech by Hunt that they know they won’t understand. The horror that follows has been given a context that is unmistakable and, even more horrifying, universal in its applicability.
Opens Aug. 9 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001).
Peterloo home page in Japanese.
photo (c) Amazon Content Services LLC, Film 4 a division of Channel Four Television Corporation and the British Film Institute 2018