David G. Hughes on Mike Leigh’s ‘Peterloo’ (2018)
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few
SO GOES THECRI DE COEUR OF Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, following the not-so-famous massacre in St Peter’s Field (now St Peter’s Square), Manchester, 1819. A crowd of sixty to eighty thousand people of the exploited labour class had gathered in demand of suffrage for the working North at a time when only 2% of the British population had the right to vote. Spooked by dissenting crowds in the aftermath of the revolutionary politics across the seas in France and America, the British landowning aristocracy came down hard, suppressing the gathering by maiming hundreds of attendees and murdering fifteen people. Left out of school history books, this event has been repressed in the national consciousness. But the repressed always finds a way of returning; recently the Labour Party leader was heard reciting Shelley’s words across the country as a political rallying call, and as debates continue about socio-economic disparity between the nation’s compass points, it is apt and timely (and overdue) that a filmic adaptation should emerge in the shape of Mike Leigh’s new film.
No doubt Leigh is angry about this national amnesia, his Peterloo is replete with a sense of righteous injustice and fury. Needless to say, this is an important film, at the level of it being an important subject that will with certainty move the sentiments of anyone interesting in emancipation politics, working-class history, Enlightenment philosophy, and other liberal ideologies. But historical learning is one thing and cinema another; despite the good intentions, Leigh’s film is lacking in a dramatic impetus worthy of its weighty subject. Daunted by the task at hand, a sophisticated narrative treatment is lacking, as well as any visual panache. Instead, the filmmakers have resorted to a series of public talks cut together with seemingly aimless intent.
This is quite apart from the depiction of ‘real world’ massacre’s that we are used to, which is usually associated with the docu-verité style that we so viscerally saw in Bloody Sunday (2002) and more recently, 22 July (2018). Peterloo is far more classical, even restrained, evoking the works of David Lean (Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, Great Expectations) in the British heritage tradition. This may well be a deliberate strategy to upend the usual celebratory spectacle of the glorious past. Yet, this is undone by a veneer of unstylised televisual rudiments, with production ambitions stretching beyond its limits. Add the fact that characterisations are fleeting and superficial in a crowded cast (alongside the presence of TV actors), and Peterloo begins to look less like a passionate call to arms as a polite ITV matinee. Even at the level of grit and violence, what we might call the visceral jugular, there is little attempt at excitation. The real violence and passions thus remain confined by the film’s visual cleanliness and 12A classification, a noble attempt to reach wider audiences that the film suffers for.
It is the super-ego this film is going for: our sense of morality and justice. It is thus, irrefutably, a moralistic film, overly dependent on its sense of political point-scoring and righteousness over its visuality. In other words: angry in theory, polite in execution. Or, as Maxine Peake’s impoverished Matriarch says, “All talk, no action.” It thereby takes the temptation to provoke us via overblown cartoon characters, either in the irksomely nobilising and mawkish singing tramp or the odious aristocrats. Caricatures are nothing new in the British repertoire of class consciousness (Charles Dickens was born six years before the massacre), but the tone sits uncomfortably.
Yet, some nuance is to be spoken of. Rory Kinnear is great as the “vainglorious” Henry Hunt, a rich landowner and celebrated orator who identifies with the plight of the labouring class before it was hip. But how much exactly? He retains his distaste for humble abodes, love for ostentatious clothing, and is quite furious with the prospect of staying in Manchester for an entire week (which earned some chuckles in the London audience). Within an otherwise homogenous group of sufferers, Hunt remains the most intriguing and ambiguous figure of the film, with a contemporary resonance. For Leigh is effective at asking the question: to what extent can rich liberal do-gooders lead a mass movement? “I don’t understand a word you’re saying,” one aggravated factory girl yells to the flowery rhetoric of the Reformers. Hunt’s explicit command not to bring any weapons to the mass meeting in defence of his “reputation” appears sensible, but there is an insinuation of using platforms for virtue signalling and is met with a stern warning about the masses being left open to defenceless attack (as it indeed happens), “This is Lancashire, and they don’t care about your reputation or anyone else’s.”
In the worst possible way, as a result of a languorous procession of speeches, we are left anticipating the inevitable massacre as cathartic reprieve. It’s a disturbing thought that the closest text Peterloo may be compared to is Triumph of the Will(1935), the Nazi propaganda film featuring lengthy Nazi harangues. The content of the speeches in Peterloo are certainly far more agreeable, but the structure remains the same and just as enervating. Even still, the massacre does in fact remain the films chief achievement, in particular the decision to turn the much-anticipated words of Hunt into something of inaudible distance (recalling the Sermon on the Mount skit in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) – “Speak up! I can’t hear a thing!”), thus giving all the aforementioned revolutionary zeal a sense of disturbing bathetic silence, punctured by cruel violence.
Peterloo presents us with the genesis of bitter cultural tensions that persist today: the cultural, economic and political division between the North and the South, the Landowners that have become Landlords. But is also presents us with the genesis of the democratic freedom hard-won, and the spark that lit the fire of nascent European Socialism, for the Labour Movement truly began following the event, left-wing firebrand The Guardian newspaper was born, Engels would soon be walking the same streets in his study of the conditions of the working class and Marx would be studying in Chetham’s Library. More than the mere blue plaque that commemorates the atrocity, Leigh has done a great public service with Peterloo and revealed a fine dedication to the city of Manchester. It is, however, painful to say that he’s made a light and mediocre film.
Release: November 2, 2018