When Mike Leigh announced his first biographical period piece – Topsy-Turvy, his film about Gilbert and Sullivan, from 1999 – the demands of the form threatened to be incompatible with his process, which involves actors generating characters from scratch through improvisations shaped and steered by Leigh. Weren’t the details of this story and these people already determined, the limits of any improvisation foreshortened? It wouldn’t do if an actor playing Gilbert felt strongly that he would ride a penny farthing, or if one cast as Sullivan insisted he had leprosy. Remarkably it all coalesced, resulting in one of Leigh’s richest, most scrupulous works, and bringing a transfusion of energy to the boring old costume drama in the process.
Mr Turner repeated the feat but something has gone badly wrong in Peterloo, Leigh’s third stab at fact-based period cinema, which dramatises the events leading up to the massacre of peaceful protestors by government forces in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, in 1819. As an Amazon Studios production, it has provided Leigh with his biggest budget to date, and the resources necessary to shoot large-scale and impressive battle scenes. But it seems perverse that a film of such length (more than two and a half hours) should find no home for so many of its director’s assets. Detailed character-work, complex domestic relationships, humour: these are elements that would have made the picture engaging rather than merely informative.
It begins in 1815 amid the carnage of Waterloo and follows a young conscript, Joseph (David Moorst), as he staggers back home to Manchester. What he finds when he arrives is misery and disarray, the poor buckling under the pressures of low wages, high prices, lack of parliamentary representation, and legislation biased in favour of the wealthy. “Is that the Corn Laws?” Joseph asks during the sort of explanatory discussion scene that is always a pitfall for any historical drama. Later, a newspaper editor announces: “We may need to remind our readers what habeas corpus means.” Which he then does. Even on those occasions when his characters have drifted into caricature, Leigh has usually captured the rhythm of everyday speech, but this isn’t it.
Peterloo switches back and forth between oppressed and oppressors. Scene after scene shows each branch of the reform movement giving lengthy and impassioned speeches against inequality and injustice, while the establishment frets that France’s revolutionary fervour has spread to England. The most patient audience is likely to fall gratefully on the villains of the piece, among them the indignant magistrate Reverend Ethelson (Vincent Franklin) and the home secretary Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson), whose speech impediment makes it appear that each line is causing him physical pain. Leigh is fond of the workplace montage – a photographer’s subjects in Secrets and Lies, a cabbie’s various passengers in All or Nothing – and the court cases presided over by Ethelson and his colleagues fall into that category. A woman is ordered to be flogged for the theft of a loaf of bread, a man to be hanged for pinching a coat. The sentences are all the more shocking for the cavalier manner in which they are doled out.
These scenes establish an unusual, self-sabotaging imbalance, whereby all the magnetism in the film comes from people who behave appallingly. Suffragette, in which most of the women were boringly virtuous and the men fascinatingly flawed, was blighted by a similar problem. But it can’t be true that cruelty is inherently cinematic whereas conscientiousness is inert. If it were, how would Comrades, an even longer film about the Tolpuddle Martyrs directed by Leigh’s contemporary, the late Bill Douglas, still be one of the most playful and passionate experiences in British cinema?
Shortcomings in Leigh’s conception of the film result in a picture where the bad characters are clearly defined and the good ones hopelessly undifferentiated. We learn almost nothing about them beyond their essential kindness or thirst for reform. Even when played by well-known actors, such as Maxine Peake as Joseph’s mother, Nellie, or Rory Kinnear as Henry Hunt, the progressive whose speech at St Peter’s Field draws a crowd of around 80,000 in the film’s climax, there’s only so much a familiar face can do. Peake is a fine actor but she needs a character to embody, rather than an abstract concept such as the nobility of the poor.
dir: Mike Leigh
This article appears in the 31 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great War’s long shadow