Mike Leigh’s latest film is one of his most magisterial, meticulous and magnificent – a dramatization of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, during which cavalry charged down a group of 80 000 working class people who were protesting for parliamentary reform at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester. The film concludes with the massacre, and starts with the battle of Waterloo in 1815, tracing the growing disquiet amongst the workers of Manchester through a broad swathe of characters and situations. At the same time, Leigh traces the responses of parliament, and their anxiety at the possibility of “seditious activity…a dangerous threat of rampant insurrection,” as the protestors join forces with middle-class reformers to insist upon “the inalienable civil liberties of all free men.” The main demand is for universal (male) suffrage, and for adequate representation of the laboring class, as well as adequate representation of the North as the part of England that is still most denigrated and ignored by London and by parliament. In that respect, Peterloo often recalls the bleak visions of the North demonstrated in novels like Hard Times and North and South, although Leigh revises the shared visions of Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell as much as he conforms to them.
From the outset, Leigh opts for a pragmatic, matter-of-fact style with lyrical interludes that often plays as a direct continuation of the address and register of Mr. Turner. As with his depiction of Joseph Turner’s painting practice, the film subsumes its intense visceral turmoil into tableaux of quietness, patience, calmness and focus, subsisting on a luminous silence that serves several key purposes. First, it cuts against the idea of a “rabble” that “needs to be awed into submission,” in the words of one parliamentarian, instead suffusing the workers of Manchester with a reflective and observational acuity that intensifies and galvanises them into action as the film proceeds. Second, it works to suggest the sanctity of monarchy and parliament, or at least the sanctity that monarchy and parliament arrogate to themselves. Third, it works to capture the espionage of monarchy and parliament, who send several agents into the midst of the Manchester workers to waylay them at quiet moments and in obscure byways , where thet try and incept them with dreams of violence that will provide police with a pretext to arrest and suppress them, and abort their demonstrations.
Above all, this pervasive silence suggests the importance of remaining patient without becoming apathetic. Beyond a certain point, this facet of the film’s silence works its way into the pacing of the film, stretching it beyond two and half hours, as Leigh enacts the importance of patience, and affirms class change as a slow but inevitable process. Much of the first half is devoted to long scenes that take place in “debating clubs, union societies and reform meetings” – spaces where the workers of Manchester can rehearse and prepare the oratorical skills they need to manage the crowds of disaffected labourers in the most efficient way. Conversely, the aristocracy are denuded of any linguistic gravitas, reduced to one lurid protestation of power after another that sees them resorting to ever more ridiculous rhetorical gestures to try to justify their position and outlook. After a while, all that the aristocracy have in Leigh’s film is this rhetoric, and the fragility that subtends it, as evinced in a brilliant sequence in which the Habeas Corpus Act is suspended in the most purple prose imaginable after the King’s carriage is struck with a mere potato in the street.
This scepticism of rhetoric tends to excavate Peterloo of the “literariness” that generally accompanies nineteenth-century period pieces, which often play as veiled arguments for the primacy of literature over cinema, only accepting their cinematic lens grudgingly and provisionally. By contrast, Leigh’s vision present literary arrogation and aspiration as one of the main tools of the ruling class, explaining why the aristocracy always take aim at the language, dialect and vocabulary of the workers above everything else. Even Henry Hunt, the bourgeois reformer who is called in as a working-class ally, is invested in this sentimental attachment to the spoken word, and to the power of his own voice, convincing the protestors that weapons are not necessary as a defensive measure at St. Peter’s Field, since his own rhetoric is powerful enough to contend with the yeomanry that the government are reportedly mounting. In that sense, Hunt is perhaps the best cipher for Dickens, Gaskell and the nineteenth-century realist author in the film, continually, and erroneously, affirming the power of literary language to restore social and class disruptions.
Conversely, the meetings of the laboring class tend to shy away from literary language, opting for rhetorical strategies that are designed to mobilise action, rather than to be appreciated or applauded too emphatically on their own terms. Early in the film, a preacher appears at one of these meetings, and tries to use it as a platform for a self-serving sermon, but he is quickly asked to stand down, and make way for a speaker with a more pragmatic imperative. Rather than focusing on the translation of spoken working-class language into written middle-class language – the project of both Romanticism and the realist novel – Peterloo instead focuses on the way in which spoken working-class language can be translated into a written language that is also equally available to the working class. It’s no coincidence that the key players in the protest discuss Hunt’s credibility against the backdrop of the printing presses, nor that it takes one of the most tabloid newspapers of the day to christen the St. Peter’s Massacre “Peterloo,” thereby embedding it in the national consciousness as an event, and a defeat, that is worthy of the grandeur and gravitas of Waterloo. In both cases, “literary” language is bypassed, and violence is instead seen as the catalyst needed for working-class speech to be translated into working-class written texts.
Put bluntly, then, the characters in Peterloo often seem to be searching for a demotic medium quite similar to cinema itself. The closest they get is the written word of the tabloid media, but even this convergence of cinema and tabloid newspapers is enough to divest the film of the residual attachment to the realist novel so typical of period dramas made about this particular period. That shift is perhaps clearest in the absence of the warm paternal beneficence that is the bedrock of Dickens’ vision of class struggle, since while Dickens’ novels may touch on many of the same issues raised here, they always rely on the sentimental assurance of warm, wealthy, avuncular patriarchs who right wrongs and restore balance to the world. This is the only element of Dickens that is completely missing from Leigh’s vision, but it’s the most important element, and its absence is quite shocking, resulting in a version of the upper middle class and aristocracy that are almost uniformly suspicious and indifferent to even the most basic of demands for human dignity from the workers. Watching it, I realised that one of the driving fantasies of the realist novel is the character who traverses class, or who breaks into a space outside of class to redeem and restore the system, but that character is emphatically, aggressively absent in Leigh’s vision.
In other words, Peterloo plays as a kind of thought-experiment in envisaging Dickens, and the realist novel, without the melodramatic sentimentality and sensibility that drives it. Time and again, the sheer calmness and patience of the film absorbs all the hysteria that conservatives both past and present might want to project onto it, while also drawing out the inherent hysteria of that conservative impulse in the process. As one of the main characters notes, “the more calmness and sensibility we show now, the more a lie we make of our enemies who have represented us as mob.” Rather than simply depicting calm, the film exemplifies the calm of the protestors, immersing us in an intently focused atmosphere that simply swallows up the kinds of rejoinder that might commonly be thrown at it. Now in his seventy-fifth year, after a lifetime of films devoted to the British working-class, Leigh radiates an unshakeable sense of his cause, and the righteousness of his cause – so assured that it suffices for him to demonstrate it, rather than requiring a sustained argument for it.
That calm culminates with the depiction of the St. Peter’s Field Massacre itself, which takes up the last forty-five mintues of the film. While Peterloo often recalls Mr. Turner, one key difference from Leigh’s earlier picture is the absence of rural scenes, since most of the action takes place in Manchester and London. Only during the march to St. Peter’s Field, and during the protest itself, does this pastoral element return, suffusing the film with a luminous Englishness as Leigh immerses us in the rhythm, dynamism and collectivity of the crowd. At times, this reminded me of the depiction of strikers in Stephane Brize’s At War, since while the import is less directly antagonistic, there’s a similar sense of being in the midst of a mass of a people, and a similar awareness, that follows, of just how unusual this perspective is in most cinema. One of my favourite moments occurs at the back of the crowd, where Hunt’s address is barely visible and audible, and where the murmurings and shiftings of the crowd are the main spectacle, just as the main gesture of resistance is one woman’s decision to share bread with all the other workers who have travelled to be there.
Since Leigh spends a good half hour just immersing us in this crowd, the arrival of the cavalry is particularly shocking. Yet Peterloo doesn’t present their arrival as a mere rupture, or disruption, of the peaceful atmosphere of the crowd, since that would be to present the crowd as “merely” peaceful by comparison. Instead, the arrival of the calavry taps into one of the key attributes of terrorist spectacle in the modern world – the dawning, inchoate awareness that something is wrong on the fringes of your experience. In many ways, the horror of terrorist spectacle comes from just this possibility of being on the fringes of it, not merely because those at the heart of it are typically consumed by it, but because the fringes of a terror attack are always where the spectacle of the attack is most compelling and most unmanageable. Something of that dawning awareness occurs here, as the arrival of the cavalry sends a ripple through the crowd that nobody can fully process or parse in totality.
By taking one of the most aestheticised aspects of terrorist experience – and one of the most resistant to aesthetic appropriation – and applying it to the arrival of government troops, Leigh spins a powerful parable about the contemporary world, and the way in which the experience of terror tends to be mobilised by those most rhetorically opposed to it. As a result, Leigh refuses to elevate the government soldiers to antiheroes, instead focusing on scabbards being thrust indeterminately into unassuming bodies, more or less randomly, and in a fairly leisurely and languorous way. There’s no elegance to the horror, no real intensity to the soldiers, and not even a particularly articulate or sustained program of evil (one of the soldiers actually criticises another for trampling down an old woman, although many of them do the same). Rather, the banality and anxiety of the perpetrators is brought to the fore, which makes their actions more horrific in some ways, but also reiterates the power of the protest, and the necessity of the protest, that they are trying to destroy and dismantle. Picking off vulnerable people in the most empty and vacuous manner possible, they’re like ancestors of modern gamers, relishing in the indiscriminate sport of stabbing here and there at will, before the battle climaxes with a shift to Ascot, where the corporal who was meant to be “managing” the situation for the Crown is enjoying one of the biggest races of the day.
The film then ends with an epilogue of three short scenes – the aftermath of the massacre, the King’s response, and the burial of one of the working men, who returned from Waterloo in the opening scenes. It’s clear, then, that Leigh has read R.J. White’s From Waterloo to Peterloo, published in 1973, and holds a similar position to Leigh on this short period’s critical role in the evolution of class consciousness in Britain. Yet Leigh goes beyond White in his defiantly anti-monarchical stance, his frank depiction of monarchy as tyranny, and his scepticism of even the most well-intentioned, or critically acclaimed, of upper-class interlocuturs, since the film pinpoints Hunt’s bourgeois assurance of his own voice as one of the main reasons for the massacre in the first place. By the end, Hunt’s tendency to refer to himself in the third person isn’t really that different from the royal plural used by the King, as Leigh recommits himself, at seventy-five years of age, to the working-class lexicon of his earliest television films. It’s an incredible gesture from a lifelong fighter, comparable to Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, and the challenge its characters set for the future is the same that Leigh sets for ours: “In 1900, she’ll be eighty-five – I do hope that it’s a better world for her.”