There’s a certain point at which one could be forgiven for thinking that Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo is about to turn into a musical. As the overworked, underpaid 19th-century Manchester mill workers trudge home on their aching feet, a woman sits in a vestibule, watching them wearily. “Good people give ear, since times are so hard,” she sings, before lamenting the poor economic conditions that blighted England following the Napoleonic Wars. On the one hand, when haven’t times been hard, somewhere, for some group of people? Later on, a grandmother gazes at her young grandchild at the end of a long day, wondering aloud if, in 1900, when the child is 85, the world will be a better place, and we feel exhausted by the question even knowing that the answer is certainly yes. On the other hand, the hard times of 1819 England feel stirringly relevant two centuries later, and the singer might as well be addressing us along with her contemporaries.
Mistaking a Mike Leigh film for musical theater may seem like an improbable kind of confusion to have, given the intimacy and close character work of much of the veteran director’s films such as Happy Go Lucky or Life Is Sweet. But his background in theater has always informed Leigh, and Peterloo is an impressively pulled off swing into a kind of cinematic scale not seen from him in decades (1999’s Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy, appropriately, seems the only comparison point), both on a production level and a narrative one. In telling the story of the eponymous massacre that left 15 peaceful working-class voting-rights demonstrators dead and hundreds more injured (the name “Peterloo,” coined by journalists who reported the atrocity in contemporary papers, was a play on Waterloo, a wink and a nod to the battle’s bloodiness as a historic antecedence), Leigh takes a broader survey of dramatic events than he normally does. From backroom parliamentary reform organizing to the bustling magistrates’ mail rooms, he gives us an anatomy of a political movement and its ensuing tragedy, relaying events through an ensemble across a wide swath of class and political power. It’s a picture of history no less moving for its lack of concentrated interpersonal intimacy on any one character.
What remains a constant in Peterloo is Leigh’s emphasis on speech, in this case the often flowery oratory that characterized both mundane legislation in Parliament and the blood-stirring sermons from radical reformers lobbying for greater representation in their government. The R’s are illustriously trilled, alliterations are punched up for maximum effect, ten-shilling words are often employed when a farthing one would do. Speeches are what draw people together and crystallize their ideas, they also, on occasion, create rifts. A moving scene at a Female Reform Society meeting gets tense when a less-educated woman interrupts a speech by one of the society’s leaders, crying out that she can’t understand a word the other is saying. Even within a working-class movement, there is class stratification. Once the speaker transitions to more direct speech, the interjector begins to nod vigorously. They were on the same page; in this case, the trappings of language had created a border.
Peterloo is almost wall-to-wall spoken word; its plot and events would be more or less legible as an audio track. But losing the story’s images would not only mean losing Dick Pope’s painterly, Vermeer-like renderings of daily Mancunian life. It would mean losing the quiet corners where it’s impossible to forget that between all the speechifying, Peterloo happened to real people. In one interlude, two women watch a trio of fiddlers from across a pond, smiling wordlessly. Even in times of the most egregious injustice, there were moments of peace and pleasure to be found. There’s nothing worth fighting for, Leigh seems to be saying, without these moments.
And the power of a good speech meets its limit in the film’s terrifying finale, in which the thousands assembled to hear radical orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) are overrun by a drunken cavalry commanded by petty magistrates and government thugs. Anyone who has been to a protest or march in the last several years will easily see themselves in the families and neighbors that trek to St. Peter’s Field with their homemade signs and snack packs, making it all the more upsetting when the assembly descends into chaos. It’s an almost overwhelming sequence of humanity that grows to an unbearable crescendo of panicked voices without a single note of dramatic score to augment it.
Leigh caps it off with a tragically ironic bookend lifted straight from the pages of history, which makes the horrors of the battlefield feel downright civilized compared to the horrors of a police state. The first time I saw Peterloo, it sent me out of the screening room onto Park Avenue with my blood boiling. Despite the oratory and the funny hats, Leigh’s ability to incite felt utterly contemporary and urgent.