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Peterloo Is a Hard Movie to Like

Mike Leigh had plenty of material to make an exciting and historically accurate film about the Peterloo massacre. He made a boring one instead.

If, like me, what you knew about the Peterloo massacre before seeing Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo is that it inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem “The Mask of Anarchy,” then like me you’re going to be incredibly bummed when nobody ever intones the magnificent lines of the refrain:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.

It seems downright perverse that there’s no dramatic use of the poem in the end. Even the marketers of the film knew how fabulous it would be, and emblazoned the glorious lines through the trailer in huge gold letters flowing across the screen between shots of mayhem and slaughter.

Which was such an exciting approach that, after watching the mute, flat ending of Peterloo showing the narrative’s main working-class family at a sparsely attended funeral in the rain, I had to ask: What the hell are you doing, Mike Leigh?

That wasn’t how it began. Peterloo gets off to a highly dialectical start that seems to announce director Leigh’s firm intentions immediately. One dramatically extended shot depicts the last bloody dregs of the battle of Waterloo that finished the Napoleonic Wars with a hard-won British victory. Leigh then tracks the brutal slog of ordinary British soldiers forced to find their own way home from the battlefield in Belgium. The focus is on a war-traumatized bugler boy, Joseph aka Josey (David Moorst), on his journey back to his family in Manchester.

This trek is intercut with a depiction of how significant ruling class figures fare after Waterloo. They don’t have to walk home, to say the least.

We cut to Parliament where “the fat leeches in London,” as Josey’s father Joshua (Pearce Quigley) calls them, immediately vote to award the Duke of Wellington, celebrated commander of the allied forces that defeated Napoleon’s army, and already a wealthy, landed Anglo-Irish aristocrat, with a gift of an additional 750,000 pounds. Focus turns to one of Wellington’s highly decorated officers, General Sir John Byng (Alastair Mackenzie), who can be traced through the movie by his smart red army coat that links him with Josey the bugler, whose own red army coat gets steadily more faded and dirty over the years.

Byng is first shown receiving his new commission as Commanding Officer of the Northern District of England, meaning he’ll soon be presiding over the rising pro-democracy movement centered in Manchester. Not foreseeing any such development, however, he’s clearly disappointed in this assignment, and asks wistfully, “Not Ireland?”

The backstory there is, Ireland’s famous tendency toward uprising would’ve meant additional potential glory in dealing with anti-British insurrection there. But you don’t get the backstory very often in this film. It’s loaded with rich historical detail—just count the number of times Mike Leigh crows on the DVD commentary track, “That actually happened!”

But it’s very unforgiving for those who don’t know any historical context or aren’t burning with interest to know all about Peterloo, the godawful massacre at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester when the British military cut down poor laboring families peacefully rallying in support of just representation in Parliament.

Personally, I wanted to know all about the rise of a democratic movement in the four years between Waterloo and Peterloo. But I could’ve used a little more explanatory assistance. For example, it seems the historical consensus is, if General Byng had been more impressed by the rising reform movement in Northern England, he’d have been far more measured and less hysterical in overseeing the rally at St. Peter’s Green, and there might not have been any massacre at all.

But we’re not informed of that tragic irony in the film, so all we see is another decadent patrician jackass in action when General Byng makes a few careless remarks about exercising caution and leaves the whole matter to a second-in-command in order to go to York to race one of the horses. There’s certainly no strong sense conveyed that things might’ve been different if the disaffected Byng had stayed at his post.

The initial compare-and-contrast between Josey and General Byng quickly dissipates as both recede from leading roles in the main narrative—Josey because of the trauma he never fully recovers from, and General Bing because he’s a rich fuck who doesn’t give a damn. As bad times get worse for the working poor after Waterloo, while the ruling class gets ever more cruelly punitive toward those whose labor runs their world, a complex number of representative factions come to the fore.

There are the magistrates, for example, the generally vicious lay judges often drawn from the clergy who spend the film arguing whether the working class poor are bloody-minded savages or misguided children, but are always in agreement that they must be kept down. There are the middle-class reformers who seek only greater representation in Parliament, and working class radicals demanding immediate justice from the Prince Regent “or we’ll put him in irons.”

Police, spies, and agent provocateurs spread chaos. Female suffragists advocate for the vote for working class men generations before the cause of votes for women generated significant support. Journalists producing the reformist paper conspire to both aid and cover the pro-democracy movement, and mill workers in Manchester, mainly represented by Josey’s extended family, struggle to survive and find their place in the confusion of forces.

In tracking all these characters, many based on historical figures, a tremendous amount of talking goes on. This is the chief criticism of Peterloo, which has received reviews that are notably “mixed,” like they say in the trade. The bad reviews generally feature a hat-tip to Mike Leigh as an honored auteur now in his seventy-fifth year before ripping into the film.

Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post says, “Leigh’s usual gift for illuminating human behavior at its most intimate and universal are sacrificed to expository set pieces and long, windy speeches,” while Glenn Kenny of RogerEbert.com notes, “Leigh’s passion for the material seems to have led him to approach it from an angle more pedagogic than artistic.”

San Francisco Chronicle reviewer G. Allen Johnson goes right for the jugular in a piece entitled “History Rendered Motionless by Mike Leigh in Peterloo”: “So much talking, with every actor bellowing lines from Leigh’s script. So much scenery chewed, so little action.”

Normally this would be the kind of take I’d favor, being all for the motion in motion pictures. But in this case, what we have is a failure to consider what the film is trying to do in the first place.

If you want to hate on a film effectively, you’ve got to at least try to describe what’s going on first. Leigh, who brooks no interference in his projects, is determined to focus on the rhetorical aspect of a rising political movement and its role in the movement’s destruction, which should be made clear before you announce that the verbosity of the movie bores you stiff.

Leigh is portraying an age in which high-flown oratory is a dominant social force and central to politics. One pivotal figure is Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), who was actually called “Orator Hunt” in honor of his ability to sway the multitudes. Once Hunt is invited to speak at the rally, the die is cast, because his reputation for radical politics and persuasive power convinces the magistrates—or at any rate allows them to pretend to be convinced—that the French Revolution is about to be restaged in England.

Radical in his defense of the rights of “the people” to universal suffrage, Hunt is portrayed here as a vainglorious man of wealth who doesn’t have much use for the actual people when he meets them—not an unfamiliar syndrome. He’s the showiest example of the potential danger of oratory. His political enemies fear his ability to rile the masses to action, while his political allies are undone by his shoddy values that undermine the movement he claims to support.

His arrogant insistence on displacing all other speakers at the rally, including the middle-class reformers and fellow orators who invited him, sow dissension among movement leaders before a speechifying word gets uttered. And his mandate that everyone in the crowd be disarmed before entering St. Peter’s Field, so that his reputation won’t become that of a mere rabble-rouser, results in thousands of worker families rendered helpless, without so much as their hoes or pickaxes to fight back with, once they’re set upon by the army wielding guns and swords.

The film examines the rise and fall of a political movement in terms of relationship of talk to action, which are often seen as opposed. “Naught but talk,” scoffs Nellie, Josey’s mother (Maxine Peake), upon hearing the men’s reports of political meetings they’ve attended and the rally they’re planning.

But she’s also the first to urge caution when there’s any hint of action being taken, such as a one-day walkout from the textile mills to go to the rally. Combined in one person are two groups you’re familiar with if you’re a member of a political organization—naysayers from the sidelines claiming you’re not really doing anything, and then when you do try to do something, screechers who are terrified that you’ll rock the boat in any way.

But talk can also be seen as a form of action in itself. If you want to get fancy you can read up on speech-act theory to confirm this, or you can just consider the scene featuring the literal reading of the Riot Act by the magistrates while Hunt is speaking. Though it’s unheard by anyone in the huge, noisy crowd at St. Peter’s Field, under the law the reading of the document re-categorizes the peaceful gathering as a “riot,” and constitutes an order to disperse. The attack by the army to quell the “riot” follows automatically.

In his film set in 1819, Mike Leigh is quite intentionally evoking the kind of language and rhetorical positioning taking place right now, in 2019, in left-wing political organizations, as well as the right-wing attacks upon them. He’s showing us how a movement grows and gets put down, in the form of talk bracketed by scenes of violent action at Waterloo and Peterloo that are catalysts for and reactions to all the talk generated.

To be interested in all this political engagement portrayed by Leigh, it helps tremendously to be involved in politics somehow already, so at least you’ll have the dismal thrill of recognition. And that probably means there’s a pretty small niche audience for Peterloo.

Most film critics are pretty clearly not members of this audience. For example, here’s G. Allen Johnson again, taking exception to Leigh’s portrayal of ruling- vs. working-class characters:

[T]here is little subtlety in Leigh’s script. Obviously, he favors the working class in this argument — who wouldn’t? — but does every landowner and politician have to be either comically inept as if out of a Monty Python piece or so villainous that all that’s missing is a Snidely Whiplash mustache? Does every working-class person have to have this pained, oppressed look?

Yeah, see, you’d hope not to have to explain to a reviewer of Peterloo that the reason the working class person has a pained, oppressed look is because they are actually pained and oppressed by real-life conditions such as hunger, overwork, exhaustion, untreated illnesses, rotting teeth, and general deprivation. Facial expression manifests actual state of being here.

As for the landowners and wealthy politicians, Leigh’s research team found that the insanely corrupt ruling class of the early nineteenth century helpfully left huge caches of letters, journals, and speeches that could be directly quoted from, representing them as mostly comically inept and/or villainous. No mad, venomous, ranting speech of hatred and contempt for the lower classes needed to be invented.

We think we live in Snidely Whiplash times now, in terms of the barbaric rhetoric of right-wing conservatives, but it’s nothing compared to the fearless, furiously outspoken loathing for working class people two-hundred years ago. They let it fly proudly.

Given Leigh’s clear investment in the role of rhetoric in politics, it’s even more maddening that “The Mask of Anarchy” plays no role in the film. Inspired by what Shelley called “the torrent of my indignation” after learning of the massacre, the poem is his effort to expose the ruling class political figures responsible—by name, in several cases—as apocalyptic monsters. He recasts the meaning of the massacre, creating a rallying cry to embolden the masses to restage the action of the St. Peter’s Field again and again, ever more indomitably: “Let a great assembly be, of the fearless, of the free.”

Lines from the poem live on in the popular imagination, and fire up the members of countless political movements, in a way the bald historical facts of the Peterloo massacre most definitely do not. Yet Leigh skips the poem altogether, and ends the film in a wet, muddy graveyard.

It’s a hard movie to like.