UK, 2018, 154 minutes, Colour.
Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Philip Jackson, Tim Mc Inerny, Marion Bailey, Robert Wilfort, Karl Johnson, Sam Troughton, Alistair Mackenzie.
Directed by Mike Leigh.
On hearing of Michael Leigh’s film, many will ask what is and where is Peterloo. Most will think of Waterloo. And, that is correct. This is the story of a battle in Peters Field in Manchester in 1819, gathering of citizens demanding their rights, set upon by the military, swords drawn, a massacre. In the aftermath, the journalists of the time were conscious of the victory at the Battle of Waterloo and the defeat of Napoleon, 1815. They coined the name for this massacre, Peterloo.
Director, Mike Leigh, comes from Manchester and has explained that this battle was not treated in history in his school days. Leigh has manifested social concern in his films, beginning in 1971. While the majority of his films focus on ordinary people, ordinary homes, ordinary situations, expertly dramatised, based on Improvisations of the cast and his shaping the screenplay based on this experience, he has sometimes moved into 19th century history. This has been particularly the case with his portrait of Gilbert and Sullivan, Topsy-turvy, and his portrait of the painter, Mr Turner.
This must be the first time that Mike Leigh has directed battle sequences. They have been expertly choreographed, the audience immersed in the massacre, the camera in the middle of the action, with the people, their fright, fleeing, being struck and beaten, the military and the yeomen overpowering on their horses and with their weapons, swords drawn.
However, that is the last part of the film. For two hours or more, the audience identifies with the citizens of Manchester and the surrounding towns, the experience of social oppression, the arrogance of the aristocracy and landowners, their place in the parliament and the lack of representation of the ordinary people, the passing of corn laws forbidding corn to be imported into England with subsequent and widespread hunger.
As always with Mike Leigh’s films, audiences are introduced to a range of characters, experience their interactions, listen to their anxieties. The film recreates the atmosphere of Manchester at the beginning of the 19th century, the scenes of the effects of the industrial revolution, the mills and the looms, the adults and children in something of long and hard labour. Then there are the speechmakers, the socially concerned, groups of people listening, the urgency for some kind of action.
By way of contrast, there are scenes in parliament with the awarding of financial grants to the victorious Duke of Wellington, the Tory parliamentarians in fear of sedition in the north, remembering, in fear, the recent French Revolution, sending military commanders (although the commander absenting himself on the day of the massacre at the races), the use of informers. Leigh's treatment of George IV is severely denunciatory and mocking.
Meanwhile in London, landowner Henry Hunter give speeches critical of the government and is asked to be the chief Speaker at the meeting in Manchester. He is something of a toff in his manner but earnest in his politics. He speaks at the rally, wants no violence (but was arrested and spent time in prison).
There has been a lot of comment on the screenplay and the dialogue. Leigh has based his screenplay on speeches from the time, verbatim, Parliamentary, harsh judgements of magistrates in Manchester, the enthusiastic speeches from the speakers of the day. Which means that there are a lot of words passionately spoken, in different accents. Some audiences, more attuned to fast action rather than listening to words, have found the film too heavy. Some critics outside the UK have wondered about the relevance of the story with which they are not familiar.
However, audiences interest in politics and social justice, in 19th century British history (and Dickens and his justice novels were soon to be published), will probably identify strongly with Leigh’s point of view, admittedly partisan and strongly so.
1. 19th century British history? Social reform?
2. Mike Leigh as director, his interest in 19th century history? His social concerns? His writing the screenplay based on rehearsals, drawing on contemporary documents and speeches? An authentic feel and sound?
3. Costumes, decor, recreation of the period? The strong cast?
4. The dialogue, literate, authentic? The different classes and areas in England? The musical score?
5. Britain in 1815 to 1819, the Napoleonic wars, 30 years since the French Revolution? The experience of Waterloo, the victory of Wellington, his heroics, his officers? The financial grant to him? Parliament?
6. Joseph, young, in the field of Waterloo, his bugle, bewildered and traumatised, the explosions and deaths? His long trek home, on the road, asking directions, the home yard, reaching home?
7. Joseph being a symbol of the war, the effect of war, the effect of homecoming, his family, wearing his uniform, asking for work and not finding any, his situation and prospects? His presence at Peterloo? With the family, observing, another battle, battle trauma? Symbolising the future of young people and the working class in Britain?
8. The portrait of his family, his father and his work, the care of his mother, his brother, the various women, the children? The limited lifestyle, looking for work, the mother cooking, going to the markets, selling, bartering for the eggs, surviving?
9. The scenes in Parliament, the Prime Minister and his speech, the praise of Wellington? The minister, his age and mannerisms, his office? Summoning the officer from Waterloo, the interview, sending him to the north, security, an aristocratic and Tory view of possible subversion in the north? The aristocrats and their superiority to the working class?
10. John Knight and the elders of Manchester? The desire for social reform, the various meetings, the range of speeches, the followings? The aggressive young man wanting action? The young speaker and his confidence? Sam, his wife, the others involved? The agenda?
11. Henry Hunter, a toff, seeing him in action, his speeches, Sam and his associate trying to meet him, his ignoring them? His reputation? Disliked by the authorities?
12. The continued life in Manchester, the presentation of the mills, the looms, the workers, the detail of the work, the role of the children, carrying packages through the working place? The owners? Owner resentment with the striking workers?
13. The collage of the magistrates, the interviews with the criminals, their crimes, the lectures, the old woman drinking, stealing, prison sentences, transportation, hanging the man because he took the coat?
14. The role of the magistrates and the other authorities in Manchester? The declarations of being superior to the others, a moral force? Their machinations? The religious ministers and their preaching?
15. The preparation for the visit of Henry Hunter, his agreeing to come? His arrival, aristocratic manner, the locals meeting him? The difficulties, having to stay a week? Going to the house of the editor, the hospitality, his wife, the maid?
16. Sam, his wife and support, training the militia? Hunter saying there was to be no violence?
17. The influence of the newspapers, the meetings, the editors, the focus on the preparation of the news sheet and its publication? The journalist from the Times wanting to be on the hustings?
18. The day of the meeting, issues of justice, reform, the vote? The different attitudes of the men and women? The magistrates and their meeting, discussion, condescending views of the people? The chairman and his authority? The presence of the military, the yeomen and the guards, the military superior going to the races?
19. Everybody in their Sunday best, assembling from far and wide? Men, women and children? The spirit? Henry Hunter surveying everything? The authorities on the hustings with him? Hunter wanting Sam off the platform?
20. The episode of the spy, going to London, the authorities, confronting the young speaker in the tunnel, getting information from him, supplying information?
21. The magistrates, the decision, the response of the people to Hunter, the military coming in, swords drawn, on horse, the attack, the fightback, the crowds being trapped, injuries, deaths, the wielding of the swords, Joseph and his bewilderment, attempted rescue of members of family, the atmosphere of fear, destruction?
22. The authorities watching from the window – even applauding? The military leader and his assessment?
23. The arrest of the journalist, his release, talking with the others, the visuals of the aftermath, the dead and wounded, the town square? The journalists and the likening of this to the battle of Waterloo? Creating the name Peterloo?
24. The attacks on the Prince Regent? The final foppish scenes, food, his mistress, his disdain of the people?
24. The story not always told in British history, even in Manchester? Its relevance to 21st-century politics and class struggles?
25. Mike Leigh, his particular point of view, partisan – and audiences accepting this? Empathy with the workers, dislike of the authorities?