If you walk down Brazennoze Street in the North England city of Manchester, you’ll stumble across a plinth upon which resides a statue of one of America’s most important presidents: Abraham Lincoln. Created in 1919, the statue stands as a testament to the time Lincoln wrote to the people of Manchester to thank them in their support in ‘the fight for the abolition of slavery during the American Civil War’. It’s one of the many things you might not know about the city, even if you’ve lived there for most of your life.
Another piece of the city’s less known political history is that of the Peterloo Massacre, where, in 1819 at St. Peter’s Field, a rally for parliamentary reform ended in the deaths of 18 people and an estimated 700 injured after the Calvary were called in to break it up. The government, led by Prince Regent, would cheer on the incident as a victory in the battle against bolshy insurrection.
With its distinctive northern feel and staunch political underbelly, it’s perhaps no surprise that a big screen adaptation would be tackled by seven-time Oscar-nominated British director Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky). Over the course of 2 and a half hours, the auteur follows the lead up to this terrible event by dipping into the lives of those on both sides of the political upheaval: those who want Manchester to have representation in parliament and those would rather these political ideals be kept under lock and key.
Young soldier Joseph (David Moorst), whilst not even close to be considered the main character in this narrative, is our audience surrogate. Spat out by the horrors of Waterloo, he returns home – via foot – with what we would now prescribe as PTSD and gamely follows those around him, perhaps hoping that life will be better now the war is over. Leigh presents the politicians and magistrates, whose machinations will rain down upon Joseph and his family, as the kind of misshapen buffoons you’d find in the political cartoons of the day. Tim McInnerny (Blackadder), in particular, plays the Prince Regent as a darkly comic and obese man who can barely remember the name of the city that’s causing parliament so many problems.
For a film where the ugly threat of violence hangs heavy in the air, Peterloo is visually gorgeous; each scene is gifted the air of a picture painted in earthy colours. When the hammer falls and the cavalry begin to tear through the crowds at St Peter’s Field, the director filters it all through a realistic lens that sneers at the romanticism of the last couple of hours. It’s a devastating scene that lasts with you long after you’ve left the cinema. Leigh’s cast, including Maxine Peake (The Theory of Everything) and Rory Kinnear (Penny Dreadful) are top notch, wrapping their tongues around dense political speeches as if they were nothing more than nursery rhymes.
If anything, this should be a five-star historical masterpiece. And yet, Leigh seems to get carried away with himself, continually repeating that which does not need to be repeated. In particular, we are made to watch several interpretations of the same call to arms, each as passionate and sweaty as the last. More time spent with those who weren’t orators would have been appreciated. Equally, when we’re not putting everything in place to storm the bastille, the day to day dialogue smacks of BBC education programmes where characters literally stop conversations to explain what the other has just said. Admittedly a device to help those not savvy with a) the political environment of the time, and b) strong Mancunian accents of which there are many, large chunks of conversation sound as natural as a footnote in a book.
With all that said though, Peterloo – despite its flaws – is likely to leave an indelible mark on you and at the very worst asks you recognise the efforts made by some to help shape the future for others, whether tomorrow or 100 years from now.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆
‘Peterloo’ hits Australia cinemas on May 16 and opens in the US on April 5.