British director Mike Leigh’s superbly crafted new film “Peterloo,” opening in Boston April 12, recounts the lead up to Britain’s Peterloo Massacre of August 1819, a murderous police riot at a peaceful rally calling for democratic reform. So the film’s whole two and a half hours are suffused with foreboding of what’s coming like an inevitable classical Greek tragedy.
The film begins with a bugler shattered by the Battle of Waterloo limping home to Manchester, England. There machine looms thunder in the mills, it’s getting more and more expensive to eat, and judges think nothing of sentencing a man to hang for stealing a coat.
Reformers aim to do something about it—holding meetings, carefully marshaling support, agitating for the right to vote and elect local representatives to Parliament.
“Peterloo” is a patient study of movement building and the forces rabidly against change. Leigh notes the quiet nods and waves as leaders signal each other in the midst of speeches at organizing meetings. He records the firebrands leading chants of “Liberty or Death” as well as the skeptics and the calm-headed believers. The film is about shifting coalitions, prim donnas jockeying for position on stage, infiltrating spies, disagreements choked down to muddle forward, colleagues ignored or sidestepped or even betrayed in pursuit of (they hope) bigger prizes. It’s about people making principled stands—that are also complicated by their ambitions.
Leigh portrays the opponents as foaming at the mouth with their righteousness. I don’t know the history well enough to judge the accuracy, but these performances can feel like caricatures.
The movement grows until the Manchester leaders call a giant rally at a major city square, St. Peter’s Field (thus “Peterloo”). They recruit as keynote speaker London activist Henry Hunt, famed for his oratory, his rectitude, his looks. He arrives cranky because the rally has been delayed. He grumpily assents to hole up in the humble abode of one of the movement leaders until the new date.
Leigh, the director of “Secrets & Lies” (1996) and “Vera Drake” (2004), is one of our era’s greatest liberal humanist directors, acutely attuned to the ways of power and class, particularly the precincts of poverty and people struggling toward good.
Hunt (played by Rory Kinnear, part of a brilliant cast) hails from the upper class and can’t refrain from ordering people about, disdaining the locals. Meanwhile England’s royal prince and the local judges insist they know what’s best for Manchester folks, better than the folks know themselves. The rulers and bosses are aghast that people would dare ask for any improvements. “That’s what they are, scum!” a mill owner scowls. “I put food on their table and this is how they repay me?”
A slimy constable arrests and beats movement radicals calling for folks to arm themselves. But when rumors arise that goons allied with the constable are looking forward to busting heads at the rally, members of the peaceful center of the movement also urge organizing a squad of armed protectors. Hunt won’t hear of it, “There will be no violence!”
The rally morning arrives. Families with children, all dressed in their Sunday finery, walk to the square waving flags and banners reading “Universal Suffrage,” “Peace and Goodwill,” “Liberty or Death.” Leigh accurately captures the buoyant protest atmosphere, the festive feel, the liberating exhilaration of finally taking public action and being joined by hundreds who share your cause.
But these sunny scenes are haunted because we know infantry bearing fearsome bayonets, cavalry with gleaming sabers, and the constable’s goons with their cudgels are coming. The troops of state and business interests ride their horses over the crowd of some 80,000 people, clubbing and trampling and slashing and stabbing. They wound old and young, organizers and audience, an old man just sitting there. Historians say about 15 people were killed and hundreds injured.
There is little music in the film. Leigh relies on the contrasting sounds of conversation, factory machines, the stunning quiet of the square after the state rampage. The prince and authorities rationalize their massacre. The families bury their dead. “Peterloo” is a great film and a painful one—shattering, terrifying, angering.
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