The United Kingdom’s moral foundation is that everything they do, whether it’s colonialism or Brexit, is unimpeachably good and proper. Former English colonies routinely ask for items that were stolen and put on display. When asked about returning an Indian diamond that’s part of the Crown Jewels, former Prime Minister David Cameron said, “I don’t think that’s sensible.” That sentiment is English paternalism in a nutshell.
Peterloo, the new English drama from Mike Leigh, is an angry rebuke from someone tired of that sensibility. The film dramatizes an especially dark episode in the country’s history, a massacre that’s often overshadowed by their victory at Waterloo. To his credit, Leigh abandons any sense of objectivity. He knows his side is the right one, and he paints the opposition as childish buffoons. There is a slight risk to the film’s method, since it slowly builds toward a sense of outrage. In fact, this is a historical film without much plot or traditional narrative. By accepting Leigh’s latest on its own terms – as a nakedly fierce polemic – you’ll come to share his outrage. Master filmmakers sometimes have that power.
Most of the film takes place in Manchester. It is 1819, and the industrialized city is far from the government’s mind. The film opens on a shell-shocked young soldier returning home on foot. He is a semi-functional adult, and there are few prospects at home. His family does not fare much better: factories keep slashing their wages, and only corrupt magistrates have any wealth. At this time, Manchester is disenfranchised, without any representatives in parliament. Leigh focuses on a few provincial intellectuals, who transform from outraged hobbyists into actual political leaders. There are many, many speeches in Peterloo, and the script sometimes copies them verbatim.
If you’re a longtime Leigh fan, then you know about his approach to drama. In films like Naked and Happy Go-Lucky, he does not have a script. He has a story, and he relies on his actors to flush out each line and character. The cumulative effect is immersive, with three-dimensional characters you usually only find in novels or the best television dramas. Peterloo is also immersive, just not in that way. He creates an evocative tapestry of the lower middle class; many scenes unfolds in kitchens and factories, and while few characters have arcs or even names, you start realize that such details do not matter. All these people share the same desperation/outrage, albeit at different degrees, and what holds the film is their desire for basic dignity under the law.
At the edges of their outrage, there are paternalist bureaucrats who look down at the working people. They sneer at political organizing, at least until they realize Hunt is coming. Now they start to see an actual threat, and set out a team of spies. The divide between right and wrong here is almost simplistic: the English government is like a cartoonish villain. In the film’s ferocious climax, where tens died and thousands were injured, the government literally reads the riot act before sending in a military force who is ill-equipped to handle the situation. Skirmishes turn frightening, and Leigh carefully films the sequence with hundreds of extras. The effective is not thrilling; instead, it creates a horrifying feeling of helplessness, which gives way to anger. You further realize there is no “both sides” to the government in this instance. They abdicated their sworn duty, and deserve the vilification Leigh gives them.
The trailer for Peterloo promises lots of pasty men in silly hats. They are very serious, indeed, which only makes them seem that much sillier. As the film continues, however, it is clear that silliness is by design. By making these characters so far removed from modernity, it is easier to recognize what is universal to their cause. For a film so concerned with historical revisionism, Peterloo does something strange. The credits start to roll without any no title cards, denying the usual explanation for the massacre’s aftermath. In Leigh’s mind, he has given you enough ammunition. He trusts you’re sensible and curious enough to learn more, and maybe do something about what you find out.