Director: Mike Leigh
Stars: Neil Bell, Simona Bitmate, Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, Tim McInnerny.
What’s the difference between Mike Leigh’s Peterloo and a portaloo?
Nothing. They both stink.
Leigh’s film marks the 200th anniversary of the “Peterloo” Massacre in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester in August 1819, where local magistrates sooled the local militia and the army onto thousands of workers protesting over pay, working conditions, parliament reform and voting rights and killed some 15 workers and wounded up to 700.
Got the connection? Waterloo – 1815; the events at St Peter’s Fields four years later; hence Peterloo!
Leigh also wrote this disaster piece, so he drives home the connection from the get-go, with a young bugler Joseph, shell shocked at the Battle of Waterloo, limping home to his close-knit family headed by parents Joshua and Nellie. Joshua, son Robert, daughter Mary, and daughter-in-law Esther all earn a living from manual labor in one of Manchester’s cotton mills. You’ve got to stitch together a living somehow.
That the workers in and around Manchester are revolting is at least one thing Leigh makes clear early on in this boring, overlong film.
Clearly most of them wouldn’t know a bathtub if they fell into one! And their clothes! Rags, more like it! Not to mention they all talked rather funny.
Still, they had some legitimate gripes as Leigh points out. The satantic cotton mills are paying them a pittance, they are starving anyway because of corn laws that prevent cheap imported grain and while Leigh skirts over such matters, I suspect health and safety issues were dreadfully ignored at said mills and try taking a complaint to human resources if a mill manager takes a disliking to your Jeremy Corbyn badge.
But if Leigh had any notion that his flick would leave audiences with some idea of what the massacre sparked in terms of improving life for the very common working folk of this green and pleasant land, then he has failed completely.
You have to go online to read that the killings at Peterloo (every time I type that I want to sing an ABBA song!) led to the formation of the Manchester Guardian and supposedly played a significant part in the Great Reform Act some 13 years later.
Much of Leigh’s film is devoted to close-ups of people on either side of the great capitalist/working class divide shouting lengthy monologues, often to camera.
The workers’ leaders shout “the people united will often be defeated” and “what do we want, etc etc” while on the other side, magistrates and politicians and pompously spoilt kings-in-waiting press scented kerchiefs against powdered cheeks as they berate the rebels hellbent on bringing mighty, mighty England down.
Most talk in a manner befitting the very best of debating traditions at the finest private schools somewhere in the leafy west of London that to this day is still thankfully only serviced by overland rail and not by the commoners’ Tube.
Even the southern orator, the radical Henry “Orator” Hunt (Rory Kinnear) who the mill workers bring north to fire up the Manchester crowd sounds like he’s swallowed a thesaurus.
And all hell breaks loose at St Peter’s Fields when the PA breaks down, the crowd yells “Speak up!” and the magistrates, pissed on top-shelf claret, invoke the Riot Act and call in the swordsmen.
The massacre scenes are well done and were noisy enough to wake up this reviewer. It also needs to be observed that the fact that some 700 people survived this brutal sword/sabre wielding attack shows that Great Britain’s national heath service was pretty good, even back then.
One of the other very few redeeming features is that Leigh is no Ken Loach. He shows that there are good and bad people on both sides; cautious folk who don’t want trouble down mill; agitators who see the need for social change; lawmakers and law enforcers who were against any bloodshed; others who saw the angry Manchester mob as rebels out to destroy England so had to be cut down and taught a lesson before damn silly rot took hold.
The bugler Joseph is cut down at Peterloo and the movie ends with his funeral scene, equally cut short so abruptly that you suspect the film’s budget ran out right there and then. At least that would explain why Leigh couldn’t even be bothered with 20 seconds of screen-time text before the end titles to explain how Joseph’s death, along with some 14 others, was not in vain.
Just before that scene we see Tim McInnerny having a fine time hamming it up as Mad King George the Third’s idiot son, the Prince Regent, who sends his congratulations to the Manchester magistrates for putting those wascally webels down.
Perhaps the other two lasting message for audience members as they leave the cinema shaking their heads are:
1. The French had the good sense to give their own royalty very drastic haircuts 30 years before the events at Peterloo; and
2. Why don’t cinemas have a “money back if not fully satisfied” guarantee like so many reputable businesses still honour to this day?