Mike Leigh has been making films since 1971, 13 full-length feature films and 3 short films to date with countless television dramas to his name as well. Many, though not all, are of ‘ordinary people’: Vera Drake (about a backstreet abortionist); Secrets and Lies (a woman searching for her birth mother) – for television his best-known drama, arguably, is Abigail’s Party. He has done historical drama before too, but in Peterloo he goes back to his roots. In an interview, he says that the he grew up near St. Peter’s Fields, where the massacre took place, yet he was told nothing about it at the time. It is, however, a defining moment in social history and the fight for universal suffrage, an event which many people have never heard of and Leigh sets out to right this wrong.
And this is perhaps where the problem with the film lies.In seeking to highlight the full horror of what happened (60,000 peaceful protesters, men, women and children charged by armed cavalry with 15 deaths and 600 injuries), many of the characters end up being two-dimensional. Those in power are bad (fat, cruel magistrates dealing out arbitrary justice); the poor are honest and hard-working and easily persuaded to drop their weapons and march peacefully. Leigh paints a broad picture from the start – the soldier returning home broken after
We jump from one portrait to the other and slowly the picture is built up and it is obvious from the outset, even if you don’t know what happened, that it is all going to go terribly wrong. The cast are great (Maxine Peake as the doubting hard-working mother; Philip Jackson as Knight the moderate reformer; Karl Johnson as the Home Secretary to name just a few) and you do get the feeling of the fear among the ruling classes that the French Revolution might spread to England. But the film is too long at 2 ½ hours; the picture too broad and the number of characters bewildering – at the end you are left wondering who half of them are and why they were in the film.
The one character who stands out as more complex is Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt (an excellent Rory Kinnear), a wealthy man with no real feeling for poor people who nevertheless speaks out bravely and clearly for reform. It is also true that the culminating scene of the massacre, although again too long, is very moving – people crushed into passages and unable to escape the flailing swords of the cavalry. At the end, there are no lines to tell you what happened to Hunt and everyone else: you are left contemplating the silent scene of the massacre.
Peterloo is an immensely important and, as Mike Leigh emphasises, largely unknown part of our social history and it is a story that deserves to be told. It is just unfortunate that in his desire to tell the story, the whole story, Leigh was not as careful as he usually is with his editing shears.