@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 2 Nov 2018
History is written by the victors, which may explain why the 1819 massacre at St. Peter’s Square in Manchester, when government cavalry forces charged into a peaceful crowd of between 60,000 and 80,000 people, has been largely absent from the approved syllabuses of British history. Mike Leigh’s latest aims to set that right, putting an event that was pivotal in the labour movement, one of the seeds from which the Chartists, Fabians and eventually the Suffragettes would germinate, back into the public consciousness in time for its 200th anniversary. Leigh has assembled a massive ensemble cast, depicting all walks of life, who find themselves involved in that fateful incident. These include Maxine Peake as a kindly mother, David Moorst as her son, a traumatised veteran of Waterloo, Rory Kinnear as the grandstanding political agitator Henry Hunt, and Alastair Mackenzie as General Sir George Byng, head of the government’s Northern forces. The result is an impassioned but laborious series of public addresses hurled with indiscriminate abandon, the same points hammered home again and again.
While it’s initially stirring stuff, the constant halting of the narrative for further bouts of impassioned speechifying becomes wearing very quickly. Both sides, reformists and establishment alike, are given to this tendency, and while occasionally utilised for satirical effect such as in the florid oratory of Vincent Franklin’s bloviating Boris Johnson-esque magistrate, it hampers this hugely important and pertinent tale with feet of clay. You can’t help but miss the natural, entrancing flow of Leigh’s semi-improvised work like Another Year. The sense of righteous anger is ever present, but there’s a pervasive artificiality that undermines the drama, not helped by Tim McInnerny‘s grotesque caricature of the future George IV, almost as extreme in its odiousness as Mark Gatiss‘ depiction of the monarch in Tom Hardy‘s gleefully bonkers Taboo.
Leigh’s intention is obviously to fully establish all the main players in the story leading up to the fateful gathering in order that an emotional attachment is created. This works to a certain extent, but as vivid, harrowing and masterfully depicted as the massacre is, its power wouldn’t have been lessened by a tighter, less trudging build up. The Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin does not lose any impact for it being an attack on strangers. Eisenstein simply understood that an audience will always respond to power being misused. Leigh’s politics are on his sleeve for sure, but he’s tempered this with an admirable display of even-handedness in his depiction of both sides. Because the story is inherently left-wing however, Peterloo would have benefited as a cinematic experience if Leigh had played propagandist even a little more.
The message is never in doubt, and there’s a perennial relevance to the tale given that the subsequent centuries have given us events like Orgreave and Hillsbrough, but the scope is just too broad and the execution too stilted for Peterloo to be anything other than an honourable failure. It’s a series of handsomely-mounted lectures dressed as a dramatic narrative, but it’s a poor and transparent disguise.