Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Neil Bell, Philip Jackson
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…a fine sweeping piece of cinema…
These days when we see news footage of a street demonstration being brutally broken up by the forces of the state, we perhaps have the comforting idea that ‘it could never happen here’. Yet each country has the potential for sections of society to clash directly, or even violently. English director Mike Leigh clearly feels this about his home country England and, in Peterloo, he addresses the idea that the past can resonate with the present.
That said, Peterloo can equally be consumed largely as a costume drama. Leigh has made historical films before (twenty years ago he made Topsy Turvy about Operetta composers Gilbert and Sullivan). His most recent film Mr Turner about the painter William Turner was also set in the 19thy century. This one similarly tries to recreate period in vivid detail. This means not just the clothes and haircuts and accents, but also the manners and views and debates of the day. This is one of the pleasures of the film.
The hinge of the drama is the big rally at Peterloo outside Manchester in the early 1800s. It is only a decade or so after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and ordinary men and women have waited in vain for a general improvement in their conditions. To make things worse, the rulers have imposed the Corn Laws which had the effect of driving up the price of grain and therefore bread. When this happens ‘bread riots’ are a real possibility.
Leigh grounds the social movement elements in concrete historical characters and this also rounds the film out. The locals (including the local journalists) have decided to invite the orator Henry Hunt to speak at their forthcoming rally. Hunt (brilliantly played by stage and screen actor Rory Kinnear) is well known to be a radical and a firebrand speaker. They have no doubt that he will stir the crowd. Still, the demonstration is deliberately designed to be peaceful and whole families attend.
As history now recalls, the carnival atmosphere turns horrible when the panicked authorities send in the troops. The sight of mounted horsemen literally cutting a swathe through the crowd is terrifyingly well realised in the set piece of the film.
Peterloo is quite long, and there is much more to it than the riot/meeting itself, but the massacre is the end point which seals the drama and condenses the message. Leigh’s point is that repression and state violence is always a possibility when the masses hit the streets.
As noted, Peterloo is a fine sweeping piece of cinema that can be consumed, as the ever-thoughtful Leigh obviously intends, at a number of levels simultaneously.