I asked myself a question after seeing Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, a question that was formed by the two factors of being from Manchester and having an interest in history, why am I only hearing about this event now? Recently director Mike Leigh called for the Peterloo Massacre to be taught in school across the UK and I massively concur, and it’s quite remarkable that such a piece of history (in my case local history) hasn’t been receiving the attention it deserves. Peterloo the film, deserves your attention as Mike Leigh’s stylistic truth is uncompromised by a far bigger budget than his other films, but admittedly, the film relies on your investment in the characters a little too much, especially when it has a brittle narrative structure.
As a Mancunian himself, Mike Leigh demonstrates a critical understanding on the Mancunian spirit, which is a unique kind of spirit, a kind where you will share scraps of food to the next person even though you may not have scraps to spare. Watching Peterloo I could easily identify these characters as people of Manchester because through the various speeches the film presents, the characters are speaking with determination and this enables the speeches to become dramatic and moving.
Furthermore, there is no main central character which will leave a lot of people scratching their heads because generally, no main character means no movement. However, Mike Leigh has found a way to unify his character so that the lack of a main character is turned into something positive. You could argue that the public speaker Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) crosses the line into leading role, but his lack of presence on the screen can say otherwise. The point is that Mike Leigh has rounded up his characters so that they share the same goal, but has the audience understand their differences on what each of them wants out of their march. Some characters want violence, some want peace and it’s the debate on how this protest should be tackled that forms investment.
In this collection of characters, the film depicts oppression at its most dramatized but truthful which is key for a film of this nature. Most of our viewing of this oppression is through the eyes of Joseph (David Moorst), a young Manchester lad suffering from PTSD after the battle of Waterloo returning to his family to find that wages are on the verge of being cut, a tax on bread and all this whilst Manchester has no representative in the British government. This forms the motivation of our characters to protest and it is such a strong one. Seeing people being brought to the brink of suffering and being asked to suffer a little longer is infuriating to witness.
Now we move on to the protest itself which in a word is heartbreaking. The level of violence is slowly built up to the point where carnage and disorganization come into play and before long you see yeomen soldiers slashing any protester in sight without a single care or thought, which creates the intended anger achieved from a British social realist film. Peterloo requires that you be angry once the credits have rolled, it is a requirement for a film that stabs at the political status quo. The sequence itself is also honourable from a filmmaker’s view, with the camera choosing to get in close to amplify the intensity, but the most intense shot is the low angle pan shot of the massacre.
Mike Leigh is a man who works without a script and spends a lot of time with actors working on improvisation, from which the narrative is formed. Peterloo is the evidence that sometimes a script is necessary. Historically, Mike Leigh has a lot of material to cover and while he manages to cover a lot, the way in which he covers it is a little too repetitive. Some are going to see Peterloo as speech after speech after speech infuriatingly waiting for the release of something happening. It can get tiresome.
I’ve covered the handling of the working class’ depiction in Peterloo, but on the other half of the class division, the upper/elite class are too dramatized with overperformance. We get that these characters are supposed to be unsympathetic towards the working-class characters, but the way they overemphasis the dialogue has them sounding more like an evil organization than a government. After the massacre, there is a scene with the Home Secretary, the PM (Robert Wilford) and the Prince Regent whose aristocracy is taken to ridiculous lengths as though it were a parody.
Peterloo manages to bring to life a piece of forgotten, pivotal history like an interactive canvas. Although intimidating to watch, to those who think they can handle the oppression shown will be stimulated by the union of the Mancunian people in the film. I can tell already that ten, twenty years down the line, Peterloo will be a special film for the people of Manchester and who knows, if it will be taught in UK schools, they’ll use this film.
Final Result: 7/10 – Good
Have you seen Peterloo? What did you think? Please let me know your thoughts and opinions in the comments below
Next Time: The Grinch