Mike Leigh may be best known for his portrayals of London in films such as ‘Naked’ and ‘Career Girls’, but his new historical epic ‘Peterloo’ brings him back to home turf.
Peterloo follows the build up and climax of the important but relatively unknown massacre of St. Peter’s Field, Manchester in 1819.
The Peterloo Massacre occurred when cavalry charged into a crowd of around 80,000 protestors who had gathered to demand parliamentary representation.
Leigh’s camera tracks multiple characters and story lines as the Lancashire locals seek change from the “fat leeches down London.”
EXACT PARALLEL: Director Mike Leigh sees a very clear resemblance between the handling of the EU referendum in 2016 and the tragic chaos of 1819
The Salford-raised director throws you straight into battle, with Joseph (David Moorst) looking helpless as chaos reigns around him at the battle of Waterloo, a shocking parallel to the scenes of Peterloo in the third act.
He’s nurtured by mother Nellie (Maxine Peake) upon his return to Manchester, who throughout the film remains level headed despite the shocking economic conditions.
The tone then immediately switches to a hilariously posh address to parliament from Prime Minister Lord Liverpool (Robert Wilfort), showing instantly the divide this film carries at its heart between rich and poor, north and south, labourer and aristocrat.
Despite being a very serious film, it still finds space in its 154-minute run time to poke fun at its characters, with one magistrate dubbed “the bard of Manchester” after a comically exuberant letter detailing his fear of violence at the march is read aloud.
The run time does seem excessive, and at times the film drags as we’re taken from one monologue to another from various speakers.
This isn’t to say the speeches aren’t impressive, Rory Kinnear is fantastic as pompous orator Henry Hunt and the juxtaposition between the upper class magistrates and labourers rhetoric is so huge at times it’s almost laughable.
However it feels at times that the audience are told rather than shown, resulting in a lengthy run time.
LEVEL-HEADED: Maxine Peake (Nellie) keeps cool throughout despite almost barbaric economic conditions
Leigh may be more accustomed to smaller productions, but he seamlessly knits the various characters stories together, cumulating in the frightful pièce de résistance of the scenes in St. Peter’s Fields.
The build up on the day of the march is completely gruelling, the stark contrast between the hopeful attendees of the protest, to the images of the cavalry sharpening their cutlasses.
What follows is brutal, as men, women and children and trampled and sliced upon by the soldiers. The dark houses and cotton works seen earlier in the film are forgotten in the broad daylight attack on democracy.
Peterloo premiered earlier this month at HOME in Manchester as part of BFI London Film Festival, the first time in its history that the festival has premiered a film outside London.
The film has a frightening likeness to 2018, which Mike spoke about in a Q&A with HOME.
Linking the incident to Brexit, he said: “The flagrant cynicism with which people were uniformed and indeed mislead has an exact parallel in the way the authorities, the government and indeed the monarchy behaved as depicted in Peterloo.”
He also spoke about his decision to hire northern actors for the northern roles, arguing it could be said that to cast a southern actor would be “damn near the same thing as white actors blacking up.”
Peterloo is out in UK cinemas on November 2.