Peterloo: I Feel Like I Win When I Lose, by David Bax
Mike Leigh made his name with contemporary, ground level social dramas like Naked and Secrets & Lies but he’s also peppered the occasional lush period piece, like Topsy-Turvy or Vera Drake, into his career. Now, for the first time, he’s made two of the latter in a row, following his previous film, 2014’s astringent biopic Mr. Turner, with Peterloo, an account of the events leading up to and culminating in the 1819 massacre of pro-parliamentary reform protestors at St. Peter’s Field (now St. Peter’s Square) in Manchester, England. Though he’s known for sometimes employing an improvisational style in which his actors come up with large chunks of dialogue themselves, this is his most purely theatrical movie yet (even more so than Topsy-Turvy, which is actually set in the theater). For roughly two hours leading up to the historic travesty, Leigh sets up the various participants, their philosophies and their grievances via one monologue after another, each impressively worded and performed. The ultimate irony of Peterloo, delivered a little too patly, is that on that day, what was said was of little import compared to what was done.
Peterloo’s sprawling cast of characters includes working class (or, too often, out of work) Mancunians—including those among them given to rallying, organizing and political activism—as well as the military and the upper class factory owners and other power brokers with a steep resistance to expanding the vote to those who would only use it to improve their quality of life and likelihood of not starving to death. Over the course of more than two and a half hours, we watch the pieces on all sides move toward a political rally featuring a speech by pro-democracy orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) just beneath the windows of the anti-reform city fathers and, crucially, within striking distance of the cavalry and yeomanry, whose officers all know on which side their bread is buttered.
Both chronologically and geographically, Peterloo is set in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Manchester’s glut of textile factories employ (and exploit) a great many of the film’s characters. For a movie that’s almost completely about the power of the spoken word, the most powerful moment may come without dialogue at all. At work in the cotton factory, the industrial looms are overwhelmingly loud and imposing. Their mechanical clangs, like the footsteps of some metallic behemoth, provide the only space in Leigh’s Manchester where talking does no good.
What combat we see for most of the first two hours of Peterloo may be fought on rhetorical fields but the prologue, an indelible portrait of post-traumatic stress setting in at the Battle of Waterloo, gives us a reference point. Both at literal war abroad and the economic one at home, the lower classes are fed into the machine without regard by their aristocratic masters.
Leigh engages in plenty of rhetoric of his own, attempting to close the distance between radicalism and commonplace justice. The pro-reform agitators of the time openly referred to themselves as radicals (perhaps it’s our failing that we’ve let the word become a pejorative) but the level of political representation and equality they’re seeking is today taken for granted, or even seen as primitive itself, as it does not include suffrage for women. The villains here—and they are villains; there’s no interest in presenting all sides’ cases as just—thus come across as vulgar and shamefully callous. They’re also more than a little hypocritical. It’s no mistake that Leigh shows us one of them railing against human rights beneath a painting of Christ.
Leigh is clearly trying to make the point that the powerful fail to take seriously the arguments of the oppressed at their own peril. Florid and period-specific as Peterloo’s dialogue may be, the picture he paints of wealth disparity is perfectly recognizable here in the 21st century. He frustrates his own case, though, when he gives the impression that he doesn’t fully believe it himself. For all of his apparent working class sympathies and the reams of lovely, passionate dialogue he gives to the orators of their ranks, he still appears to look down on them, favoring the gentleman radical Hunt while portraying some of the lowly organizers themselves as gullible and hotheaded, easily goaded toward violence. Consequently, Leigh comes across as endorsing a notion of a sort of noble autocrat. Peterloo is an entertaining enough experience for those who love the English language but, as a polemic, it’s too self-satisfied and short-sighted to gain the impact it seeks.