Mike Leigh, one of Britain’s greatest living filmmakers, doesn’t kid around when it comes to historical drama. His period films are steeped in authenticity, capturing how people spoke and how life was really lived, and it can be daunting for a contemporary audience to keep up. I had to make a couple of passes through his last historical film, “Mr. Turner” before I really understood what was going on.
So it is with “Peterloo,” his new film dramatizing one of the most violent and shameful episodes in British history, a massacre of demonstrators by military forces in 1819 Manchester. That event doesn’t come until the last half-hour of the film. In the previous two hours, we are introduced to dozens of characters pontificating on a variety of political issues of the time.
At first, I was a little lost. But then I began to see the shape of the social mosaic that Leigh is assembling here, a fierce and articulate portrait of the struggle between the powerful and the powerless. For all the archaic language and costumes, “Peterloo” feels like it could be happening today.
Dissent is brewing among the working class, which is organizing to fight for fair representation in Parliament, tax relief and universal suffrage. The ruling class, nervous after seeing the French Revolution occur a few years earlier, want the resistance snuffed out.
The organizers plan a massive demonstration in Manchester’s St. Peter’s Square, where a celebrated orator named Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) is sure to draw a massive crowd. Worried government officials fear that the demonstration will become a “powder keg” of rebellion, and beef up the military and constabulatory presence in Manchester. A sense of dread begins to pervade the film, and even viewers who don’t know the history can sense the coming disaster.
But it takes a while to get there, as much of the film features characters on both sides of the political divide orating at length. The speeches are stirring and verbose — and familiar to anyone who follows politics in 2019. When a mill owner complains that his workers are ungrateful to him for “putting food on their table,” as if their jobs were an act of charity, I was reminded of the lionization of “job creators." Much of “Peterloo” is interested in the power of words, their ability to stir crowds or to inflame prejudices, to propel people toward action for either good or for ill.
Leigh isn’t interested in balance here. The working-class organizers are mostly heroic, decent folk, while the ruling class are mostly vicious, arrogant prigs desperate to hold on to their power and privilege. But Leigh does find room for nuance on both sides. With the organizers, there’s a familiar tension between older activists who want to work within the political system, and younger firebrands who call for revolution. Hunt, a wealthy landowner who stirs the masses with his rhetoric, seems rather disdainful of those same people when he’s away from the podium.
Within the corridors of power, there are arguments over whether the government needs to yield a little to the demands of the working class, or crush the organizers with a firm hand. Leigh also shows us why the elites are so panicky; with King George III incapacitated due to mental illness and the feckless Prince Regent in charge, England seems weak and directionless, vulnerable to revolution.
It all builds to the film’s horrifying climax, in which soldiers on horseback trample protesters, their swords slashing madly. The veneer of civilization, of those flowery words on both sides, has fallen away. Peterloo may have occurred two centuries ago, but Leigh’s film makes the struggle feel uncannily, uneasily relevant to modern times.