Mike Wayne reviews Mike Leigh's new film, a complex, powerful reconstruction of a key historical moment in the ongoing class struggle of the British working class.
Most of Mike Leigh’s films have been small scale, intimate and personal stories rather than the explicitly political territory Ken Loach is well known for. And yet with Peterloo, Leigh has made what is arguably his most accomplished and important work and possibly one of the most significant works of historical film drama on British history.
Admittedly the subject matter instantly lends the work the potential for significance, just because this is an example of a story from history which has not received the attention it deserves, in the popular culture or in our education system. Here was an episode when the British state responded with violence towards the working class, who were struggling to establish something like the substantive and meaningful democracy which the elites today pretend was there all along. It was not of course and neither was it graciously handed down by benevolent elites. They were forced to concede it, under pressure, but they did so having already demonstrated they if they were pushed too far and too fast, they would not hesitate to respond with violence.
In the early years of the nineteenth century the British ruling class were concerned to produce their own ‘hostile environment’ towards the demands for democratic representation that were coming from the labouring classes, especially inspired by the French revolution of 1789. The film begins on the battlefield of Waterloo (1815) where we meet Joseph, a bugler, stumbling around half-dazed, surrounded by cannon fire. Joseph will still be wearing his distinctive red soldier’s coat on a very different battlefield in St Peter’s Field, Manchester (1819) at the film’s climactic scene. This visual linking via Joseph of the two battlefields, is the film’s temporal sleight of hand, as it feels that only a matter of months had passed rather than four years. It is a brilliant compression and one example of the way Leigh eschews naturalism for a more pointed construction of historical and social truth. And here is the true measure of Peterloo’s significance and achievement. Because while at the level of historical content any film that recovers a repressed history is welcome, this film, so richly underpinned by historical research, has marshalled its material into a formal architecture that does justice to the subject matter.
One of the basic dilemmas that confronted Leigh in telling this story was that it is unintelligible unless it is understood as a collective story and a story of different collectives, or classes converging with tragic consequences at a point in time and space. Yet our storytelling conventions and habits are largely built around individual heroes whose goals and actions push things along. As a result our stories do not usually ring true as historical events. Leigh’s solution is to strike a balance between a focus on one family who take us into the film initially and who reappear consistently throughout, and a much wider ensemble of individuals and groups, many based on the real historical figures involved in the period, who collectively develop the political action. The family is Joseph’s, and he returns to it, traumatised by what he has seen. His mother Nellie (Maxine Peake) is politically aware while his father Joshua works in the local mills. The family’s difficulties in surviving exemplify how hard life is and provide the personal evidence of what is at stake. But it is the confidence the film has to spread its dramaturgy much wider than this family unit, which is key in developing the social and historical understanding of what is happening and why.
An early sequence convinced me that I was already watching a breakthrough film, when we are introduced to a number of the local magistrates in a series of vignettes. Here we see them meet out their brutal penalties (flogging, transportation and hanging) for a series of petty crimes committed by the impoverished. The fear and loathing of the local bourgeoisie of the working class is moderated slightly by the national government and the aristocracy there, and in the army. They are that much more secure in their rule and confident in their position to urge caution, although when a potato is hurled at the Prince Regent as he waves to the crowd, they are quick enough to suspend habeas corpus. So the one essential ingredient for the compelling realism of this film, that all the key classes are present and correct, is fulfilled. But there are fine individual portraits within these ruling class social types, even when the range of opinions they express falls within the narrow compass of their prejudices and fears. It is the working-class characters, and to a lesser extent their liberal middle-class reform allies, who represent a range of opinion and perspectives on the issues of the day.
This is a film that is very much about the communication of ideas, whether in the written form (letters, the press) or above all through oral speech. There are a lot of speeches in this film, the content of which has mostly been culled from what the real people these characters are based on did say, according to the historical records. But this does not make the film dull or like a series of lectures. This is because the speeches are themselves intrinsically interesting and powerful and in the case of the working-class characters especially, a treat to hear the eloquence, passion and politics with which they cognise their situation. But the film is careful to always have some little drama playing around the speeches to give them a wider layer of narrative interest. It may be that police spies are watching, or that there are disagreements between speakers or that there is some lively interaction between audience and speakers. But there is also the ever-present potential and actual consequences of communication and speech as well.
This is a film about the dangers of rhetorical overload. The industrial bourgeoisie ramp up pressure for a violent reaction to the working class demands for political reform by their hysterical reports of what the workers are up to. The young working-class radicals are tempted by agent-provocateurs to talk of arming the workers, thereby overstepping the mark and allowing the government to arrest them. Or there are the rhetorical flourishes of the middle-class leaders of a women’s reform group whose words go over the heads of the working-class members of the audience. And when they speak up and talk of their experience during a recent strike, the middle-class leaders quickly move on.
This last scene points to the internal class tensions between the working class and the liberal reformers. This is central to the film’s portrayal of the relationship between Samuel Bamford (a great enthusiastic performance by Neil Bell) a working class radical and the middle class Wiltshire landowner Henry Hunt (played by Rory Kinnear, a superb piece of classed casting). It is Bamford who is instrumental in the film in getting Henry Hunt invited to address the crowd in St Peter’s Field after he impresses him with a speech in London. But they fall out when Bamford suggests that it would be wise to have some small number of men armed with cudgels and swords on the day in case the forces of ‘law and order’ are unleashed on them. Hunt, who does not know the situation in the North as well as he does in London, rejects the idea and subsequently has Bamford banished from the platform on the day as the vast crowd assemble. How resonant that is now, when metaphorically the middle class dominate the public media platforms and the working-class representatives and organic intellectuals are nowhere to be seen.
It is a touch of genius that in a film full of speeches, we barely hear any of Henry Hunt’s on the crucial day. This is because it is no longer that relevant. Of far more importance is the way the local bourgeoisie prepare to set the Yeomanry and cavalry on the crowd. Bamford’s prescience as to the possibility of violence and the need for self-defence raises a question which is all too rare in British political discourse, namely, how to respond to the violence of the British state. There are no easy answers to this question as the history of the North of Ireland shows. Yet it is a question rarely even broached, such is the invisibility of the violence of the British state within mainstream discourse.
Leigh incidentally has said that he regrets not having Irish Mancunians play a bigger role in the film, and while it is a shame both for the historical record and the added layer of contemporary resonance it would have lent the film, we must also recognise the difficult choices inevitably involved in bringing this story to the big screen. The final climactic scene is incredibly shocking even in the absence of the kind of bloody gore we expect from contemporary films. It is shocking because of the evident and appalling injustice meted out to the crowd by a ruling class for whom the workers are deeply inferior. The descendants of that ruling class are all around us and in their basic attitudes towards the working class, they have barely made any progress since the nineteenth century. Leigh’s complex, powerful reconstruction of a moment in the ongoing class war, needs to be seen and debated widely.
Mike Wayne is a Professor of Film and Media at Brunel University.