What possessed the British Tory government to order a military charge on horseback into a crowd of over 100,000 unarmed, working-class protesters? The place is St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, England, and the slaughter ended with 18 dead and hundreds injured as the cavalry — swords drawn — slashed through a gathering of dissenters in an enclosed space that made them ducks in a barrel. The time is August, 16, 1819, though Mike Leigh’s painstaking re-creation of the Peterloo massacre might as well be happening right now outside your window. Rest assured, there was nothing fake-news–ish about this rally against taxation without representation. The people were starving as a result of tariffs that cut off imports of low-priced grain from the outside. Quashing their revolt was no cause for celebration, though the smug government tagged the incident “Peterloo” in dubious honor of Britain’s victory over Napoleon the year before at Waterloo. The injustice sparked an outcry from citizens and journalists who found inspiration in the American Revolution’s victory over British tyranny. Though it is barely taught in schools, the incident represents a significant moment in the annals of rebellion.
For many, Leigh seems an odd choice Leigh to direct a historical epic. His best-known films (Naked, Secrets and Lies) are mostly a kitchen-sink mix of drama and comedy in which Leigh masterfully orchestrates the improvisations of actors into an intimate mosaic of life among the labor class. Even Leigh’s forays into period-piece drama — such as Mr. Turner (2014), about the 19th-century painter J.M.W. Turner, and Topsy-Turvy (1999), which detailed the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado — follow the same improv pattern.
Not so with Peterloo, which quotes directly from public record, including speeches from the likes of firebrand orator Henry Hunt (a dynamite Rory Kinnear), whose rabble-rousing resonates like thunder but still can’t stem the violence against the subjugated citizens he’s sworn to help. Much verbiage, from fiery to dry-as-dust, is expended from the floor of Parliament, from the elitist prime minister (Robert Wilfort), the clueless Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny), and the mysterious Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson), the home secretary and spy master. The intent of these politicians, like many before and since, is to suspend civil liberties.
And not surprisingly, Leigh reserves his most profound sympathies for those members of the working class who are spoiling to be heard. Maxine Peake is especially moving as Nellie, a Manchester labor slave with a rebel’s sense of outage. Nellie is mother to Joseph (David Moorst) a young soldier and survivor of Waterloo, who limps around, still in uniform, in a PTSD daze that stands in mute testimony to the ravages of war. At 154 minutes, the film gets bogged down in rhetoric. But Leigh’s visceral staging, especially in the climactic moments — brilliantly shot by his longtime collaborator/cinematographer Dick Pope — brings home the significance of a 200-year-old bloodbath that still speaks urgently to the disenfranchised.