Filmmaker Mike Leigh Revisits Peterloo Massacre In New Film
'Peterloo' arrives as bicentenary of event approaches
"High Hopes" (1988)
"Bloody Sunday" (2002)
Director Leigh tackles the period drama of “Peterloo” with the same sense of realism and authenticity that he endows his films about England’s modern-day working class (“High Hopes,” “Naked” “Secrets and Lies”). But he is no stranger to period drama, having made such fine historical biopics as “Topsy-Turvy” (about Gilbert and Sullivan) and “Mr. Turner” (about painter J.M.W. Turner).
The film opens in 1815 as the Battle of Waterloo ends after nearly two decades of war. England defeated France and Leigh finds one lone young British soldier (David Moorst) seeming lost on the battlefield. The boy, Joseph, makes his way back home to Northern England to find a very different kind of battle going on. Political tensions are high as the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows wider and more painfully pronounced. Joseph's family is struggling to make ends meet, and the hard times are stirring people to activism. Fewer than 2% of the population had the right to vote at this time and the Corn Laws that the government had enacted were making bread unaffordable for the poor.
Leigh’s film methodically builds to the 1819 rally by pro-democracy and anti-poverty protesters at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, where Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear in a fine performance of both strutting ego and genuine passion), a politician and agitator with a gift for oration, was scheduled to speak.
The rally was meant to champion workers' rights and advocate for parliamentary reform. Of course, privileged landowners and those in power felt threatened by what they saw as a growing radicalism. As the rally began, Hunt was arrested and the cavalry, armed with swords, was sent in to disperse the crowd of 60,000 men, women and children. The carnage that ensued left more than a dozen dead and hundreds injured. The term Peterloo was then coined to reference Waterloo and to mock the soldiers who had attacked the peaceful demonstrators. Looking back on the event, historians often see it as a pivotal point in winning the right to vote for the average person in England.
Scenes of terrible violence bracket the film but almost everything in between is focused on people talking. I have seen some reviews complain about this as being boring. But I found it riveting because Leigh looks to the power of words and how words are a form of action that can, as Hunt says, cause "ripples" that build into waves. The film is a fascinating examination of political activism and how speech can move people to action and awaken a desire for change.
Leigh looks to all different kinds of speech and political tactics as well. Some advocate for political reform to get everyone the right to vote while others advocate for violent rebellion and killing the king. Leigh also looks to the press and how printed words also carry power. Words do matter and Leigh's characters choose their words for very specific reasons and it was refreshing to hear a film filled with so much impassioned speech.
At their core, Leigh’s films have always been about people and about empathizing with whatever it was that was going on in their lives whether it was families in turmoil, difficult relationships or artists struggling to express themselves. Leigh’s strength is his great humanity and his ability to convey real characters that move us.
With “Peterloo” he goes for a larger more epic historical canvas. The result is a thoughtful, humane, and passionate look at a chapter in British history that still resonates for contemporary audiences as it considers political strategies and questions of what ends justify what means.