Peterloo

November 13, 2018 § Leave a comment

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The Mike Leigh film I’ve most enjoyed and found most touching is Topsy-Turvy, whose story of the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership and the D’Oyly Carte troupe is brought to life as a homage to the camaraderie of performers and their everyday struggles. Shirley Henderson ends the film with an acutely poignant rendering of Yum-Yum’s ‘The Sun and I’. The camera holds her face (and what we have learned about her) in close-up before tracking back into and above the audience, leaving us to see what they see, from a distance: only the role and the performance. It’s what Leigh does well and with subtlety. The period film is clearly within his grasp.
Nearly all of his films could be described as ensemble pieces, in which a family is explored: its loyalties, crises, conflicts and weirdnesses. Family can mean close relatives or, more loosely, some kind of intimate group or pairing. This applies to Turner (father, son and servant) and Topsy-Turvy, as much as it does to Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake, Life Is Sweet and High Hopes.
With Peterloo, Leigh has faced an enormous and very different task, not only in departing from his familiar arena of intimate experience and connection, but in confronting British history on a grand scale, and those significant parts of it that remain little-known because of being so much obscured.
Mike Leigh has talked about his realisation that the Peterloo massacre is not taught in schools today, just as it wasn’t taught in his own schooldays. How to remedy this crucial absence of historical context for a film audience who probably won’t know much about the Corn Laws, the suspension of Habeas Corpus, the extent of Parliamentary representation in 1819, or even be aware that Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo established a period of reaction across Europe?
Leigh has recognised the problem. Peterloo is driven by a commitment to authenticity, so that we see how people lived and dressed, what their food cost and looked like, where their political meetings were held, the activism of the reform clubs (including the Female Reform Club) and the nature of their discussions. The camera shows us the desperate hunger and hardships visited on working-class people with the cutting of wages and the rise in food prices, as Maxine Peake’s character attempts to feed her family. We see some of the leading figures in the fight for reform, from the young servant John Bagguley, an eloquent revolutionary, to artisans, labourers and small manufacturers. But the effect of relying on expository dialogue to lay out a detailed social and political background means that both speech and action are often stilted. Of the many public speeches, some have a passion and fire inspired by the French Revolution, while the repetitive rhetoric of others slows the film’s momentum. It’s already overlong in its build-up to the massacre – a problem for a film that aims to reach a very wide audience that might lose patience in the waiting.
There are moments of vitality that work because of Leigh’s talent for domestic tragicomedy. One of these is when the self-important orator Henry Hunt finds himself a guest at the modest home of a middle-class reform supporter and we see a live tableau of awkwardness and overweening condescension. But Peterloo only comes fully alive on the day of the mass demonstration, a festive expression of solidarity that brings people together from across the North of England, many with their children, and again there are notes of the familial, humorous and hopeful.
The colourful banners proclaim not just anger at economic oppression and class injustice, but the demand for the right to vote and be represented in Parliament. Most reiterated are ‘No Taxation without Representation’, rooted in the American Revolutionary War, and the French Revolution’s famous cry of ‘Liberty or Death’. This vast scene buzzes with the elation of possibility.
Yet we know what’s going to happen; we’ve seen the ‘Yeomanry’ have their sabres sharpened. Shock upon shock arrives when, after the first onslaught, the hussars ride in and they too hack at the defenceless crowd. The bloodshed and terror have all the more power as we witness the visceral hatred at play in the massacre from a soldiery that gladly does the bidding of a ruling class determined not to lose its privilege.
Leigh has shown us this ruling class of gentry, judges and others as they meet to plan the measures taken, squabbling among themselves over hierarchy. Villains all, they are the objects of needless caricature, as is the bloated Prince Regent.
This is a country where labour history has few instances of public commemoration (you have to seek them out or stumble upon them), and the overwhelming narrative is one where British democracy and British freedoms trump everywhere else (a refrain throughout the Brexit debacle). The historical truth is at odds with this myth: until the 1832 Reform Act, Manchester and many other industrial centres had no representation in Parliament. Most MPs represented the countryside and were more likely to be chosen or bought by a local landowner than elected at all. In 1832 the vote was extended in a very small way and it took another century of Chartism and other working-class movements to reach the franchise we can all now take for granted.
If only Leigh had diverged a little from dependence on his script, to free the drama from the weight of the history lesson, this would have been a much stronger film. He could have corralled his didacticism and made it more straightforward. Even historical fictions from Hollywood resort to the black screen for plain statements a drama might otherwise struggle with.
Despite its weaknesses, Peterloo tells a story that sorely needs telling, like so much else in this country’s rich history of labour’s long fight for rights.
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