For a director who will forever be primarily associated with his intimate studies of ordinary British families, it's an odd coincidence that the past two Mike Leigh films have opened on foreign soil. Leigh's scope has expanded the further he has pushed back into the past. His 2014 biopic Mr. Turner began with a bucolic scene in the Netherlands, as the artist sketched a windmill in contented isolation, but his new film Peterloo begins with a much less tranquil scene. Leigh plunges us straight into the carnage as the battle of Waterloo reaches its bloody final days. We take the viewpoint of a startled bugler (David Moorst), staggering through the explosions and the bodies, with Dick Pope's camera circling him to capture the chaos. Joseph simply wants to make it home, but when he does return to Manchester he finds little comfort. Stricken by PTSD and with no work available to him, Joseph rejoins a family that is already struggling to make ends meet.
This opening suggests that Joseph will be one of Peterloo’s key protagonist, but he soon recedes into the background. Mike Leigh’s films are usually built around a strong central figure or a key relationship, but in examining the events that led to the massacre at St Peter's Field, Manchester in 1819, Leigh has taken a panoramic view of history. The film is a sprawling ensemble piece, cutting between multiple points of view and different classes to expose the inequality and oppression of 19th century Britain. It’s by far the biggest subject that this great filmmaker has ever tackled and at times the scale of the project seems to preclude the qualities that usually distinguish his work. Our time with each character is fragmented as Leigh switches his focus between the various factions, and he struggles to locate the film’s emotional centre. It seems Joseph’s family – including his mother (Maxine Peake) and father (Pearce Quigley) – should be where our interest and sympathies lie, but these characters don’t come to life in the way we’ve come to expect from Leigh’s pictures.
Instead, it’s the more colourful characters who make the biggest impression, or in some cases the ones who speak loudest. One of Peterloo’s central themes is the power of oratory, with characters such as Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell) or the renowned but vainglorious Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) frequently stating the need for reformation through impassioned speeches, emboldening the disenfranchised masses. Leigh’s decision to construct his film largely through these town meetings and exchanges of rhetoric makes it feel intermittently stimulating and rousing, but oddly static. Offset against these working class declaimers are the upper classes, presented as sneering grotesques, with Vincent Franklin’s bringing an entertainingly theatrical edge to his furious pomposity as the Magistrate Reverend Ethelston, and Tim McInnerny going into Blackadder mode as the oblivious Prince Regent.
There is unmistakable and justifiable anger in the filmmaking here, and that anger is what carries us through Peterloo’s uneven and rough patches, with the film gradually building a cumulative force. All roads lead inexorably to August 16th, 1819, with the build-up to the massacre taking up much of the film’s climactic hour. Leigh follows the massive crowds – families walking hand-in-hand, clad in their Sunday best – as they converge on St Peter's Field, developing a queasy tension and we anticipate their fate. As they gather below, the magistrates sit in their elevated vantage point, drinking wine and preparing to unleash the assembled military forces on the crowd. The ensuing carnage is shocking and brutal, shot in close quarters and cut with a visceral energy by Jon Gregory. The panic and fear is tangible, the atrocity indefensible. It’s by far the most ambitious and complex sequence Leigh has ever staged, and he carries it off with breathtaking assurance.
And then we have the calm after the storm, with the Prince Regent – reclining as he is fed sugared treats – praising the magistrates for restoring “tranquillity,” as a family stands huddled over a grave and a group of journalists surveying the scene of the bloodshed prepare to share what they have seen. The massacre at Peterloo has been spoken of as a defining moment in the history of the working class struggle for enfranchisement, but Leigh doesn’t place the film in its historical moment; there are no blocks of text at the end of the film to explain what happened next or why Peterloo matters. Leigh’s aim is to make this story feel immediate and current rather than demarcate it as a piece of ancient history, leaving it open for us to draw our own contemporary parallels with what we have seen. Peterloo isn’t consistently involving enough to rank among the very best Mike Leigh films, but the film’s aggressive, blunt power – alongside the typically immersive attention to period details and language – is enough to make this story come to vivid life right at the painful end.