In 1819, British forces charge on a peaceful pro-democracy rally at St Peter’s Field in Manchester, England, which results in the Peterloo Massacre.
Initial release: April 12, 2019 (United Kingdom)
Director: Mike Leigh
Distributed by: Entertainment One Films
Production companies: British Film Institute, Film4 Productions, Thin Man Films
Nominations: Golden Lion, Volpi Cup for Best Actress
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.
British writer-director Mike Leigh has often included a dose of social commentary in his films, whether comedies (“Life Is Sweet”), tragedies (“Naked”) or biographies (“Mr. Turner”). In his historical drama “Peterloo,” social commentary is joined at the hip with political commentary, resulting in a study of dark times in 17th-century England – specifically Leigh’s hometown of Manchester – that led to the heinous incident known as the massacre at Peterloo.
The name is a play on words, referring to the Battle of Waterloo, site of Napoleon’s defeat, which is seen in passing in the film’s opening moments. It’s from there that exhausted British soldiers stagger their way home – in this case to Manchester – only to find that their families are dealing with exorbitant living costs and ever-rising taxes. Yet, at the same time, foolish government officials, singing the praises of the victorious Duke of Wellington, decide to give him a gift of 750,000 pounds. The poor working class? What poor working class? Who are they but a bunch of troublemakers?
It’s from that point that Leigh’s slow-paced, very talky film begins its long build toward its inexorable climax. It should be no surprise that this is slow and talky; that’s kind of a Leigh trademark. The difference here, and the reason this film is going to be a challenge to sell, is that Leigh and company have gone overboard in delivering their message, in attempting to show that history repeats itself, that a story of a government ignoring the needs of its people is extremely relevant today.
The poor working class folks of Manchester want representation in the government, want lower taxes, want to be able to live a life that isn’t all about just scraping by. Families talk about it quietly in homes. Soon friends gather in pubs and get a little more animated about it. Eventually there are larger and louder town hall meetings. “Something must be done!” proclaim the participants.
But the government magistrates – you can call them judges – regularly pass down harsh sentences on poor people who have committed petty crimes. And after “office hours,” the magistrates get together to have a laugh about the worthless working class. Most of them refer to the lowly citizens as rabble and believe that the only thing they would understand is the rod. The magistrates want to “crack heads.”