Mike Leigh has tackled famous historical subjects before, like ‘Mr Turner’, a portrait of 19th-century Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner, ‘Topsy-Turvy’, which recounted the creation of The Mikado, and ‘Vera Drake’, a gritty and morally ambivalent portrayal of a backstreet abortionist in 1950s London.
In fact, you could say that the two key characteristics of Leigh’s films (at this stage in his career) are authentic period details and juicy character studies that allow talented actors to build amazing creations via weeks of improv rehearsals (think 'Naked', 'Secrets & Lies' and 'Happy-Go-Lucky') .
Be forewarned: Leigh’s latest film is a lot of the former, and very little of the latter.
‘Peterloo’ is the nickname given to a massacre of unarmed civilians by cavalry soldiers that occurred on the 16th August 1819 at St Peter’s Field in Manchester. Eighteen people were killed in the melee, with hundreds more injured; the movie builds to the horror, culminating with soldiers on horseback charging into a crowd with their swords drawn and randomly slashing at people who are unfortunate enough to be in the way.
The immediate effect of the massacre was a crackdown on reform, as the authorities feared the country was heading towards armed rebellion. The outcry led to the founding of the Manchester Guardian, and played a significant role in the passage through Parliament of the Great Reform Act 13 years later.
Leigh chooses to focus on the cause of all the trouble: tariffs imposed on imported grain (known as the Corn Laws) and the widespread dissatisfaction with these laws, which benefited wealthy landowners at the expense of everyone else that couldn’t afford to buy cheaper imported grain, and resulted in demands for parliamentary reform.
If you like films that discuss tariffs (hey, ‘Star Wars’ is all about a dispute over taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems), then you're in luck! The first hour of 'Peterloo' features a lot of public meetings at which organisers bellow rhetoric at one another. Great, passionate speeches are made in this section of film about the lack of political representation, with much grumbling about wage cuts and so on.
If you like films that discuss tariffs (hey, ‘Star Wars’ is all about a dispute over taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems), then you are in luck!
The actual narrative flits around this central issue, following Joseph (David Moorst), a weary soldier returning home from the Battle of Waterloo. An economic depression makes work impossible for the traumatised man to find and threatens his family's livelihood. This leads to him becoming semi-radicalised.
We also see Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell, 'Dead Man's Shoes'), the radical reformer who invites renowned orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear, 'Spectre', 'The Imitation Game') to deliver an address at St Peter’s Field.
There is an inescapable sense that this passion project of Leigh’s was never intended to entertain an audience in a conventional way. Whether it was meant to be didactic or whether tariffs don’t lend themselves particularly well to dramaturgy (‘Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace’ was the worst one, after all) is debatable.
While the film is dense and exhausting and probably of most interest to Mike Leigh completists, ‘Peterloo’ is nonetheless a scrupulously accurate movie about the Peterloo Massacre, steeped in background detail, with a relevance that still echoes today.