As somebody who lived and worked in Manchester for many years, the title of this film strikes a resonant chord with me. It refers to a particularly horrible massacre which occurred in the summer of 1819, when a huge crowd of peaceful pro-democracy campaigners marched to St Peter’s Field to hear a speech by acclaimed orator Henry Hunt, and were promptly set upon by the local yeomanry and a detachment of Hussars with sabres drawn. In the ensuing melee, 15 people were killed and more than 500 were seriously injured. The event was subsequently airbrushed from the pages of history and rarely spoken of. It’s not taught (much) in schools and many people – even those who live in the city where it occurred – have never heard of it.
One man who clearly thinks of this as a major injustice is Mike Leigh. Peterloo is his attempt to rectify the situation and it represents his most ambitious undertaking to date, portraying the slow build-up to the event and the massacre itself, whilst still employing his unique (at least in film) improvisational technique, where the actors inhabit their characters and devise their own dialogue. I’m sorry to say that I don’t think it works too well when applied to something of such immense scale. Sure, Leigh has visited the pages of history before, both in Topsy Turvey and in Mr Turner but, in both cases, he was working on a smaller canvas. Don’t get me wrong, I’m generally a huge fan of Leigh’s films, but what works brilliantly when applied to more intimate events founders somewhat here. Mind you, to be fair, the film does start well.
We meet Joseph (David Moorst), a young bugler at the Battle of Waterloo, clearly deeply and permanently traumatised by his experiences. The war over, he heads home on foot, to find his family struggling to survive in a country assailed by the corn laws, which prohibit the import of cheap grain. Family matriarch, Nellie (Maxine Peake), and her husband, weaver Joshua (Pierce Quigley), can barely afford to eat, so it’s hardly surprising when they find themselves increasingly drawn into the pro-democracy movement and looking forward to the great day at St Peter’s Field, when thousands of people in similar situations will come together to challenge the powers-that-be. The settings are convincingly done. Here is real squalor, real hardship, a million miles away from the chocolate box imagery so beloved of many period dramas – and early scenes of luckless individuals in court being sentenced to heinous punishments are powerful stuff.
But there are a lot of characters to take in – so many that, inevitably, acclaimed actors are demoted to tiny, walk-on roles. And there are speeches – a lot of speeches – so many that the film’s two hour running time starts to drag, especially in the long sequence depicting the mass gathering at St Peter’s Field. Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), heralded as a hero by the protesters, is depicted as a rather unpleasant, horribly self-serving prig who clearly thinks himself a cut above the working-class people whose plight he is supposed to be representing. The people would clearly have been better served by speaking for themselves.
If there’s a problem, it’s that virtually every establishment character we encounter is a smirking, pompous and downright unpleasant individual verging on caricature. This reaches its apotheosis in Tim McInnery’s turn as the Prince Regent, a bloated, giggling buffoon, not so much out of touch with the electorate as living on another planet. Of course the ruling classes’ behaviour was abominable, but this seems crude and over-simplistic.
And then of course, there’s the massacre itself, a lengthy sequence that really ought to bring us to tears of outrage – but the film’s 12A rating obliges Leigh to hold back from making it too visceral and the result, with sabres clearly hitting little more than fresh air just feels clumsy and unfocused. If ever a sequence cried out to be properly storyboarded, this is it.
This isn’t a total dud. Indeed, there’s plenty here that does work but, I think, too much that really doesn’t. I feel bad for not having enjoyed it more. I really wanted to like it, but ultimately, it feels like a missed opportunity. This is such an important subject, one that symbolises a turning point in British history and the democratic movement. I can’t help feeling that it deserves a better film than this.