Director: Mike Leigh
Starring: Maxine Peake, Rory Kinnear, Tim McInnerny
Length: 2h 34
The subject of Mike Leigh’s earnest historical epic is the 1819 Peterloo massacre. This was a key moment in British political history, when a peaceful rally of working-class campaigners for universal suffrage in Manchester was attacked on government orders, resulting in the death of 18 and severe injuring of 700. The film is steeped in a righteous indignation for, and a tender human concern with, the injustice experienced by the victims. Don’t worry though, this is far more than just an indignant history lesson from an angry socialist, it’s also a really great period drama.
I was really struck by the film’s fantastically earthy vividness in its sense of time and place. So many period dramas have a whiff of the dressing up box about them but with ‘Peterloo’ you really feel as though you’ve stepped into another world. The film is crammed with evocative details, from details as small as the irregular colours and shapes of the market produce to the characters’ gloriously discoloured teeth. I have heard compelling arguments both for and against the historical accuracy of grotty teeth in period dramas, but I don’t care- I love a film that is brave enough to give its characters bright yellow teeth with no fanfare whatsoever. The past certainly is another country in ‘Peterloo’, one full of the impassioned rhetoric of reformers in local pubs, majestic green rolling hills nestled against rapidly industrialising towns, oppressively loud and lethal looking mill machinery, and of course, dodgy teeth. However, Leigh never loses sight of the fundamental humanity at the core of this historical event, despite its foreignness.
This is particularly noticeable in the portrayal of the working-class characters. In period dramas they are often relegated to small, comic parts, or to indulgent poverty porn. Refreshingly, in Peterloo Leigh treats his working-class characters with a deep compassion but without ever being patronising. It is probably a bit of a stretch to say that this film has a main character, with its thorough, systematic focus directed at every level of the event. This ranges from the working-class protestors, to the regional governors of Lancashire, right up to the Prince Regent himself, played very entertainingly by Tim McInnerny, armed with a fat suit and more than a hint of grotesque relish. However, if I had to say there was a main character, then I would say that it was Maxine Peake as Nellie, the mother of a traumatised Waterloo soldier. She expresses the harshness of early 19th century working class life in an impressively down-to-earth, non-sensationalist way, such as in a brilliantly understated scene where she barters a pie for some eggs, and we are given a subtle insight into the struggle she has to simply put food on the table.
The same goes for the handling of the massacre itself, which is fantastically humane and non-glorified. The focus is on the victims, and subtle, mundane details, such as when Nellie’s family share their picnic with a pair of siblings who had walked to the protest from all the way from Wigan, serve to make the final tragedy all the more moving.
The film is not without its issues, at 2 hours 34 minutes and with a huge set of characters it fully earns the label of epic. After a few hours it sags a little and gets perhaps too bogged down in the actions of Henry Hunt, the famous reformer who was supposed to speak at the rally. However, despite being dense, and maybe somewhat overlong, Peterloo is still a vivid, engrossing and very human drama, with an ending that provides a real emotional gut-punch, as well as plenty of food for thought. If you are after a breezy romp, then this probably isn’t the film for you, but if you don’t mind a dense, lengthy film, then ‘Peterloo’ is a thoughtful, entertaining and thoroughly worthwhile watch.