THE MASS MARKETED history of England has pretty much only focused on the high and the mighty. Kings, colonialism and, mainly, Churchill.
Here’s a much needed antidote.
Peterloo was the massacre of the innocents. In 1819, a vast crowd of peasants and workers, many unemployed, many starving and bent under the yoke of recently passed Corn Laws, gathered together peacefully in St Peters Field in Manchester. They’d come together to listen to radical orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) and to press for better Parliamentary representation. Their lords and masters, contemptuous and threatened by the fear of a French Revolution on English soil, unleashed the 15th Hussars to scatter the crowd. These sword-wielding, bayonet-piercing, possibly drunk Hussars charged the crowd like the wolf unto the fold and wrecked havoc.
Director Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner, Vera Drake) seeks to make the obvious point that, to a certain class of people (i.e the present British government) the ordinary folk continue to be feared and demonised. Peterloo’s “unruly mob” is today’s “hoard” of benefit abusing shirkers…to be put down at any cost.
This is an important side of the rich tapestry of the English identity that needs to be a part of the national conversation. But Leigh isn’t the person to do it. Here the story has overwhelmed its teller. Leigh’s ideological passion is so strong that this shoddily told tale never rises above the level of a well-illustrated History Channel lesson.
We expect art…our artists… to engage and transform us through credible characters that make us give a damn, and through the selection (and omission) of detail whose careful storyline construction forms a dramatic arc that has the power to seduce us into the heart of the artist.
No such luck with Peterloo. We’re offered a series of strident speeches by various, often anonymous, talking heads, many of whom never reappear. (A small mercy). These “good guys” are contrasted with the “bad guys”: nasty boo-hiss villains, dripping with contempt and malevolence. Their ultimate leader and moral force is the prince regent. He’s clearly the symbol of the Royal family, the upper class and ALL THAT’S WRONG. He’s fat, effete and degenerate.
Maxine Peak as an archetypal downtrodden but unbowed woman trying to earn a few extra shillings for her destitute family, and Kinnear as the pompous, vain Hunt try their best to bring some humanity to the history lesson. But even their skills are overwhelmed by Leigh’s thudding self-righteous solemnity.
This is Leigh’s undigested history: it’s about the French Revolution, The Napoleonic War, the Corn Laws, the dark Satanic cotton mills, capitalism, the feckless upper classes, working class nobility v upper class entitlement, starvation, unemployment, and more. The rich look pampered and powdered. The poor all look dumb and degenerate. All in six hours (OK, it’s only two hours but it felt like six). Six pounds of stuff in a two pound bag!
And nary a thread to knit it all together seamlessly
Now, let’s be clear, I’m on Leigh’s side politically.
But as art, this movie’s a dud.
PETERLOO. Dir (and writer): Mike Leigh. With: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Neil Bell. Cinematographer: Dick Pope (Mr. Turner). Production designer: Suzie Davies (On Chesil Beach)