Mike Leigh’s new film ‘Peterloo’ follows the democratic reform movement in Britain in the run up to the St. Peter’s Field massacre in 1819.
After a long build-up we are shown the attack itself, when the yeomanry (a local armed volunteer force) are ordered to march on the tens-of-thousands strong protest, killing 15, and then left to reflect during a sombre final scene: the burial of a murdered protestor.
The film has grown on me since I saw it two weeks ago. Mike Leigh said in the Q&A I attended that he had brought in outside historians to help with the film’s depiction of the time — something he has previously resisted, he said, especially with his contemporary social realist works.
It shows: from the worn clothes of the working class families to the formal black and white of the magistrates, everything looks authentic. The use of vernacular and contemporary dialogue across social and economic classes is also extremely well done.
In Mike Leigh’s method of directing, scenes and their dialogue are developed mostly “on-set”, through discussions with actors, and with very little pre-written material. The actors had to develop a genuine and in-depth feel for the vernacular. Leigh is sensitive to the political and class tensions within the parliamentary-reform movement of the time, and also to its breadth.
For example, we are given a glimpse of the contributions of the Female Parliamentary Reform Association, through a meeting in which a small group of working-class women complain that they cannot understand the speeches of the middle-class female leaders of the group, only to be hushed by the middle-class majority of other members in room. The film has been used to provide a platform to explicitly pro-Corbyn actors to speak about political issues, as demonstrated in some of Maxine Peak’s recent interviews.
I still think the film has some shortcomings. It is long, at around two-and-a-half hours, and the perhaps over-done expositions of the Corn Laws and Habeas Corpus make the experience rather dry and less likely to inspire action emotionally and fire up activist spirit. It is not coloured by funny moments, although Leigh is good at creating these even in the most serious films, and some actors, such as Peake herself, have often played funny characters or have a comedy background.
Furthermore, with the exception of Orator Hunt, the characters are also a bit bluntly drawn and one-dimensional. The working-class characters are all good, honest people who don’t deserve their hardship partly because they are nice; the local magistrates and anti-reform Lords are all vicious and angry, with the sort of morale character of people who would order an attack such as the Peterloo Massacre.
While comparisons between Ken Loach and Mike Leigh are usually clunky and flippant, they are perhaps fair in this case, with this way of constructing characters familiar in Loach’s films including I, Daniel Blake.