One of the great benefits of cinema as an art-form is that it allows storytellers to offer a platform to oft-overlooked areas of history. Film has incredible potential to reach audiences with the kind of historical insights that would never make their way into the typical classroom. Of course, that’s not how it always works. World War 2 films, for example, are more often than not told by Brits and Americans for their home audiences and centred on their involvement in the conflict. How many Churchill films have you seen in your life? Peterloo, the latest film by Mike Leigh, recounts an early 19th century moment in working class Northern England wherein a large and peaceful protest in favour of equal parliamentary representation led to an army commanded massacre. If you were unfamiliar with this event, you’re most certainly in the majority.
Mike Leigh is typically known for his gritty tales of contemporary social realism but he’s also a remarkable director of history. Both Topsy Turvy and Mr. Turner are beautifully shot and intricately detailed period pieces that remain grounded in both character and purpose. Peterloo, in that aspect, is pure Leigh, and perhaps sees the director at his most fiery in terms of sheer political rhetoric. This is a stridently political film about oppressed workers, the starving underclasses, and the monocle-popping fat cats with their iron grip keeping their employers and tenants down.
That does mean it’s mostly a film of talking. There are speeches a-plenty here, all delivered by top class actors (Rory Kinnear is a stand-out as a pioneering political speaker who’s also a vainglorious peacock). Depending on your tolerance for extended conversations on the necessity of organized protests, this could prove riveting or snooze-inducing. The detail is truly exhaustive. It’s unclear if the film covers literally every detail leading up to the massacre but it wouldn’t be surprising in the least to hear that it did.
However, this approach entirely purposeful. Leigh wants you to be educated by these speeches, but he also wants audiences to understand how such rhetoric impacts different people. Some speeches are rabble rousing joys to the majority but it remains unclear if everyone truly comprehends what is being said. Some attendees get the gist of the message but don’t understand certain words, and when this issue is brought up, it’s shut down almost immediately. Even within the working classes, the divisions are stark.
Leigh’s period dramas are impeccable in their details and Peterloo is no exception. Where this is most appreciated is in the griminess of the story. Everyone’s hands are noticeably dirty, everyone has yellow teeth burdened by stains, and some people’s clothes are clearly better cared for than others. The attention is adoring but there is a delightful lack of polish. This is a cast that looks authentically of that period and with accents to match. The film frequently reminded me of how damn rare it is to hear Northern English accents like Maxine Peake’s in films (Leigh’s been fighting that good fight for decades now). Peake, one of Britain’s best actresses, is such a perfect fit for Leigh that you can’t help but wonder why it took so long for her to be cast in one of his films. While this is an ensemble piece, Peake’s unique flinty qualities make her an instant scene stealer.
The vast majority of Peterloo is dialogue, but that only makes the climax of the massacre itself all the more gut-wrenching to watch. The film shows the many petty fights, the brutal classism and the questionable legal decisions that helped to seal the bloody fates of the peaceful protesters. When it comes to the point where the cavalry is called in, audiences have been suitably riled up by the blatant injustice of it all. Leigh, working on a much bigger budget than usual thanks to all that sweet Amazon Studios money, gets truly epic in his crowd scenes and the extended massacre features some of his most expertly composed camera work: The freneticism of the scene is captured but the carnage always visible, as are the looks of sheer cowardice on the soldiers themselves.
Peterloo, for some film fans, will be the kind of movie they consider homework, too lofty and weighed down by its need to explain every detail to be truly watchable. In fairness, this is homework, but it’s far more riveting than mere descriptors can evoke. It will be tough for others to ignore the contemporary parallels and the immediacy of this story about working class oppression in the face of a callous ruling force. However, it’s all deliberate. Mike Leigh wants you to sit down for two and a half hours and learn about this pivotal event in British history that most people will have never encountered before. Surely that deserves our attention?
Header Image Source: Courtesy of TIFF