Abstract

This essay offers a close examination of director Mike Leigh's Peterloo, which recounts the struggle for parliamentary reform in Great Britain between the battle of Waterloo and the Peterloo massacre of 1819. Peterloo succeeds, the essay contends, because of Leigh's approach to the craft of filmmaking. If we take Peterloo on its own terms, that is, with an understanding of the unique form of creative labor that went into it, we get a better sense of what we can learn from it, about class politics, about power, about the complicated and difficult formation of democratic movements such as that which brought those many thousands to St. Peter's Field in 1819.

Reviewers were unsure what to make of Peterloo, director Mike Leigh's reconstruction of the lead-up to the violent dispersal of the thousands who had gathered on Manchester's St. Peter's Field, in August 1819, to hear speeches in favor of the radical reform of Parliament. As a filmmaker, Leigh is no stranger to historical material, having examined the creative process behind the musical theater of Gilbert and Sullivan in Topsy Turvy (1999) and the life and work of painter J. M. W. Turner in Mr. Turner (2014). But still, for those accustomed to the less polemical, less epic portrayals of everyday life in Leigh's best-known films, Peterloo had the feel of a historical set piece concerned mostly with scoring political points. The no-nonsense, unsentimental, but always sensitively constructed worlds of the lower middle-class row house in Life Is Sweet (1990) and Another Season (2010), or of the working-class council estate flat in Meantime (1983) or All or Nothing (2002), seemed to have been replaced by a political and social scene on which the spotlight of history had already shone. Reviewers from journals on the political left were more appreciative of the film's polemical side. But there was nevertheless disappointment in its treatment of the social and political history behind the event itself.

Leigh has a reputation as an auteur, and his movies have never been big moneymakers. But that doesn't mean that, as a filmmaker, he is able to somehow work outside the constraints of commercial cinema. Thus, a film like Peterloo could only be a radical condensing of history, in this case the politically and economically tumultuous years between Wellington's victory at Waterloo in 1815 and the slaughter on St. Peter's Field in 1819. Liberties were necessarily taken, timelines reconfigured, details blurred out, particular themes dramatized. Still, Peterloo succeeds, and its success rests on Leigh's approach to the craft of filmmaking. If we take Peterloo on its own terms—that is, with an understanding of the unique form of creative labor that went into it—we get a better sense of what we can learn from it about class politics, about power, about the complicated and difficult formation of democratic movements such as that which brought those many thousands to St. Peter's Field in 1819.

Too Much Talk, Too Little History?

A. O. Scott of the New York Times commended Leigh for the attentiveness to political speech in Peterloo. “Language is a weapon in the arsenals of power and resistance alike,” Scott said, “and if you listen closely to the motley idioms and accents that fill the soundtrack . . . , you can hear the currents of history moving.” In the end, deep fears “of the guillotine and the mobs at the Bastille” transforms the unbalanced, panicky rhetoric of elites on display throughout the film into action. Peering out from the second window of a house on St. Peter's Field, the magistrates of Manchester read the Riot Act, which no one among the great crowd in the field could possibly have heard. The “state and its agents,” writes Scott, “take control” by sending in the yeomanry. Within minutes they “lose it” as the drunken and undisciplined amateur soldiers rip through the crowd.1 Perhaps not surprisingly—its journalistic predecessor was born in the aftermath of Peterloo—reviews in The Guardian were also positive. The film did justice to the event that was “Britain's 19th century Sharpeville and Hillsborough,” says Peter Bradshaw. John Harris, also in The Guardian, paid tribute by noting the film's alignment with E. P. Thompson's conclusion that Peterloo was a “formative experience in British social and political history.”2

The response from the right puffed up fears of leftist propaganda in the film industry. The right-wing Daily Mail's Dominic Sandbrook recognized that while “Peterloo was a very dark day,” it was bad timing and bad luck, rather than a plan, that led to the violence on St. Peter's Field.3 Sandbrook then channels the frightful visions of revolution coursing through the Tory elite of Regency England, visions that in actuality propelled the violence on that occasion. Leigh's Peterloo, he wrote, was a Corbynite-inspired effort to use “our history as a weapon in their campaign to turn Britain into an East German theme park.”4 From the conservative National Review in the US, a critique that misses the point of the actors’ colorful and often satirical versions of the elites in charge in Manchester and London at the time. Peterloo resorts to “pop-media modes of villainy,” wrote Armond White. The “overkill . . . insults the civility already trampled in the Manchester town square,”5 he adds with some strained civility of his own.

Others in the mainstream of cultural commentary were less hung up on whether Leigh was manipulating history to suit some ideological project. The issue here was whether or not Peterloo met expectations people have when they sit down to watch a film, especially one conceived and directed by Leigh. National Public Radio's Danny Hensel felt lost due to the film's lack of a main protagonist. He also wondered what had happened to the “deep characterization” that is “Leigh's strength.” Even worse was the “burden” of the dialogue in Peterloo, Hensel said, which seemed “so false and overdetermined that you can hear the screenplay.”6 All this “fulminating,” complained Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post, meant a movie “that feels oddly detached” from the people and events it set out to portray and indeed, from what filmgoers might expect from Mike Leigh. “Rather than a fine-tuned excavation,” Hornaday adds, “Peterloo unfurls like a grandiose pageant, in which Leigh's usual gifts for illuminating human behavior at its most intimate and universal are sacrificed to expository set pieces and long, windy speeches.”7 In the online cultural magazine the Observer, a similar complaint: the film is so “laden with monologuing” and “so lacking in dynamism” that viewers might mistake it for an account of a “debating society made up of well-funded, early modern history re-enactors.”8

Reviews from consciously left positions were more concerned about the film's relationship to history. In Jacobin, Eileen Jones concluded that Peterloo is “a hard movie to like.” Too little context, she said. “The rise of a democratic movement in the four years between Waterloo and Peterloo,” she added, was not sufficiently spelled out. Especially disappointing is the film's final scene—which, like most Leigh endings, comes suddenly and offers no way forward. One would think, suggests Jones, that a film about the event that inspired the powerful final lines of Percy Bysshe Shelley's “The Mask of Anarchy”—

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few

—deserved more than that.9

Peter Linebaugh, a radical historian of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Atlantic working class, wrote in Counterpunch that Peterloo “is a major representation of a major battle in the history of class struggle.” But in the end, Linebaugh says, the film's account falls short. Referring to a shot of the narrow street housing several of Manchester's mills, he says, “Just look down the alley . . . and what do you see? Bales of cotton stacked upon one another. It is not enough to hint at” their significance. “There are circuits of money and labor that are global; neither's in the film.” To remain tethered to a representation of nineteenth-century class relations that misses these connections, or fails to explore them, “is no longer a forgivable flaw amongst the cultural workers of England.” They—filmmakers included—“should know better, unless they are content with same-ole same-ole green lawns and precious drawing rooms of BBC Jane Austen films that buttress the ideological apparatus of white supremacy.”10

This particular critique is off the mark. Leigh's representation of English society and politics in Peterloo is starkly different from the typical “heritage” productions to which Linebaugh seems to refer.11 Costume and manners, and definitely mannerisms, are key components of Peterloo, and the film's representation of them do not wash out the harsh, exploitative nature of the early nineteenth-century social order but focus attention on it. The portrayals of the key characters of the ruling elite in Regency London and Manchester are extravagant, and pointedly so, precisely because their corruption, their arbitrary power, and their fear of the guillotine is in fact difficult to exaggerate. Life for the working class in and around Manchester was harsh and was portrayed as such in the film, as were the class and regional divisions that shaped the internal dynamics of the reform movement. Its frame of social reference, what Raymond Williams referred to as a “knowable community,” extends well beyond the range of a Jane Austen novel, or any of the several film adaptations of them.12

The more one sifts through recent historical representations of British institutional and social life in filmed commercial entertainment, the more Peterloo stands out. While the appeal of Victoria (Netflix) and The Crown (PBS) may be that they showcase the monarchy “warts and all,” and Bridgerton (Netflix) supplies a counterfactual multiracial twist on Regency Era high society, all nonetheless carry on a tendency that Peterloo so clearly resists: the normalization of hereditary privilege and power. Then there is the hugely popular PBS series Downton Abbey and the feature-length version, released to great fanfare the same year as Peterloo. While Peterloo takes place in a different time and setting, its treatment of social and political relations couldn't be further from what one critic referred to as the “awfully retrograde appreciation of rigid class systems and monarchy” at work in Downton.13

But what about Jones and Linebaugh's suggestions that the film could have provided a more epic representation of this moment in history, worthy of Shelley's “Mask of Anarchy,” or a representation worthy of the global connections of industrialization in England that historians have over the decades uncovered? Peterloo is a two-hour-and-twenty-odd-minute film, not a four-hundred-plus-page work on the history of class struggle under capitalism. Historian of the period James Epstein, in the American Historical Review, indicated that Leigh strove to get the history right in Peterloo, and that by and large he did.14 Sure, the effort to fill in context is strained at times. There is a slow pan of a mill to remind viewers of Manchester's place in the economic upheavals of the early industrial revolution; true enough, except that in 1819, such a mill would have more likely been filled with mechanical spindles rather than the mechanical looms pictured in the film. Also, the film does not quite unpack who actually made up the “great multitude” in attendance during the radical reform meeting of August 16, 1819. The sense is that they were by and large mill hands, when the available evidence shows that much of the crowd actually marched into Manchester from surrounding weaving communities.15 But these are technical issues—perhaps images of operable looms were all that could be found?—or signs of the inescapable difficulty of trying to squeeze in enough context without overwhelming the actual drama of the film. And Peterloo, as we will see, does indeed have something to say about those famous last lines of “The Mask of Anarchy.”

The Craft of Mike Leigh

Leigh has been openly critical of Hollywood and the media conglomerates that dominate the industry. Certainly, the latter's control of film distribution determines what films actually get a wide viewing, and the gatekeeping, production-by-committee ways of mainstream film production shackle the process by which particular creative visions make it to the screen. But there is some room for maneuver, as Leigh's and others’ careers show. His contributions to the 1970s and early 1980s wave of publicly supported made-for-TV films established his reputation and that of other British filmmakers, such as Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, Alan Clarke, and Peter Greenaway. Ongoing critical success, as well as occasional commercial success with films such as Secrets and Lies (1996), has kept the independent funding accessible, though getting it is still a hustle. Leigh's reputation as an auteur surely helped him get backing for Peterloo from Film4 Productions, which supported several of his earlier films; the British Film Institute, a public charity that uses lottery funds to promote native filmmaking in the UK; and, perhaps ironically, Amazon Films.16Peterloo is Leigh's most expensive film to date, but its budget of around $18 million is minuscule compared to the average price tag of over $190 million for a Marvel/Disney production. Although estimates vary, the 2019 Marvel film Avengers: The Endgame came in at around $400 million.17

Leigh's blasts at Hollywood are not based on highbrow qualms about commercial popular culture. The filmmaker describes himself as having a “natural and instinctive and compulsive gravitation toward show business, entertainment, making people laugh, a fundamental need to capture life and share it with people.”18 But Leigh's method of making films is unorthodox, to say the least. That his films do not begin but end with a script confounds industry gatekeepers looking for a precise sense of how a production fits into what political economist James McMahon calls an “orderly, predictable world of cinema.”19

Indeed, Leigh's projects likely leave those holding the purse strings and working the deals shaking their heads. As Leigh told the Daily Beast, his “pitch” is not really a pitch at all: “We say: ‘Give us some money, we don't know what it is going to be about, we will not discuss casting, and you will see the film when it is finished.’ ”20 Obviously, this doesn't always work, so Leigh does commercials on the side to keep the money coming in, like others struggling to push the creative boundaries of capital's hegemony in the culture industry.21 That Amazon stepped in with funding for Peterloo probably speaks more to its deep pockets and its desire to burnish its image as a new player in the culture industry than to any independent commitment to a diversity of voices and perspectives in the world of cinema.

In interviews, Leigh has offered colorful contrasts between what happens on more typical Hollywood productions with what happens on one of his. “We don't have committees of people on the set crowding around the monitor after every take and arguing the toss. They don't bugger about with the editing. We don't get people making us re-cut the film and get a more sexy or commercial ending or all that stuff.”22 Very few Hollywood stars would tolerate the Leigh “method,” which requires that actors do much more than memorize their lines and put their spin on a character in a script. They must research their characters, create their individual histories, develop their style of speech and mannerisms by hashing it all out during intensive one-on-one sessions with Leigh. Every character in a production is critical to a Leigh film, and every actor is a character actor, no matter how much time he or she ends up on-screen. The whole cast eventually gets together to improvise scenes and dialogue, but only after each individual character is developed, in effect collaboratively written by Leigh and the actors themselves. A “script” does not start this process; rather, it is produced by it. Grounded by Leigh's experience with intensive rehearsals for live theater, by all accounts it can be disorienting, hard work, but rewarding for those who embrace it.23

Those who made up the cast in Peterloo engaged in a form of collaborative cultural labor that is very different from the more individualized, star-driven process behind most films. In mainstream commercial cinematic production, the creative work of building and performing a character is not only limited by the presence of a script. As Danae Clark put it, the importance and value of that work is dominated by the system's investment in, and commodification of, the actor's persona.24 What's more, characters in mainstream Hollywood films tend to have a transparency to them: their exterior selves, their mannerisms, their outward personalities, are constructed and acted in ways that allow viewers to ascertain some ideal human type behind it all. This kind of acting, Leigh has said, leads to characters who become “ciphers” for some essential or archetypical quality. This makes it easy for viewers to relate to them in one way or another, but it tends to confirm conventional expectations and individualist myths instead of challenging them.25

“I regard it as my job,” said Leigh in an interview, “to find ways of giving each actor or actress something to get their teeth into, to liberate them to do really interesting characters.”26 The same approach applies when Leigh is taking on historical events and people, as he did in Topsy-Turvy (1999), Vera Drake (2004), Mr. Turner (2014), and Peterloo. “There was still a great deal to find out about,” he told another interviewer, “even how people talked and what language they used. Whatever film we make, the amount of research that goes on is always colossal.” The idea is for actors to dig up “everything they can think of to make those characters three-dimensional.”27 Although Leigh is not a fan of Method acting, while improvising, rehearsing, and filming he wants his actors to be their characters by fully inhabiting the perspective they've researched and created for them. For example, in Vera Drake, Leigh's remarkable film about a working-class woman in 1950s London who performed illegal abortions, none of the actors playing roles in Vera Drake's family even knew what the character of Vera (played by Imelda Staunton) was up to until the very moment in filming when she got arrested. In this case, the up-front investment in characterization, with plot and then script following on, made for remarkable cinema.

When asked by interviewers about working with Mike Leigh on Peterloo, actors confirm that the primary investment is in the collaborative labor of creating well-crafted characters with both individual and sociological depth. For example, Maxine Peake, who played the matriarch of the fictionalized family of mill workers in Peterloo, described how important it was to capture the “weight” of a character in Nellie's position. “You start doing your research from the off,” she said. “You have to start looking at the period and how you and your family would have lived—simple things like what did you own, what was rent, what did you eat, what was going on politically at the time.”28 Rory Kinnear spent two months poring over accounts of the speeches of his character in Peterloo, Henry “the Orator” Hunt, as well as Hunt's thousand-page autobiography. The result was a characterization that embodied Hunt's contradictions as a haughty “gentleman farmer” whose push for radical parliamentary reform the working classes had come to see as “an essential means to the improvement of their condition,” as one historian put it.29 The actors who played High Tory, High Church magistrates from Manchester went to the National Archives to plumb court transcripts and the personal papers of the actual men they portrayed for lines they would employ in the film.30 The process in Peterloo was same as it was in all Leigh's films: intensive research, along with collective collaboration and improvisation, so as to create not archetypes but “characters [that] exist in a three-dimensional, organic way in front of the camera.”31

“I Would Regard What I Do as Political”

What about Leigh's own trajectory as an artist? Born in 1943, Leigh was raised in a Jewish middle-class family in a working-class part of Salford, a near suburb of Manchester, where he attended local schools and grew up “conscious of the impact class has on people's lives.” While aware of his own advantages, he held fast to his cultural and political sympathies with ordinary working-class people. His participation in school plays earned him a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and from there he bounced around the art school circuit. This, combined with an immersion in the cultural ferment of the early 1960s, forged an experimental sensibility, but one that drew inspiration, as Leigh put it, from “working from [a] source and looking at something that actually existed and excited you.” His career as artist began in earnest in theater in the mid-1960s, although he saw this largely as preparation for making films, suggests film historian Leonard Quart.32

In the 1970s and 1980s, Leigh was an important figure in the heyday of the publicly subsidized made-for-TV movie, many of which built off the “kitchen sink” realism of Tony Richardson's Look Back in Anger (1959), Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), and Ken Loach's Kes (1969), a wonderfully evocative portrait of a working-class schoolboy finding momentary freedom in a northern colliery town. Coming out of a less privatized, more socially democratic tradition of cultural production certainly gave Leigh, and others, Ken Loach and Stephen Frears among them, the room to experiment in terms of social content, at least within the limits imposed by the small-screen format and small budgets. Leigh's films from that era—Bleak Moments (1971), Hard Labour (1973), Grown-Ups (1980), Home Sweet Home (1982), and Meantime (1984)—have stood the test of time as sensitive, humorous, and strikingly unsentimental portrayals of the everyday lives of working-class men and women and their families.33

One should not, however, simply characterize Leigh films as “realism” and leave it at that. Leigh's goal is to represent real people, living real lives, but this does not mean his films try to capture simply what people say, what they sound like, what they look like, where they lived, and so on. He recognizes the influence of the “kitchen sink” films, but more important were the slower-paced, layered, and up-close characterizations of Jean Renoir, and especially Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. As with Ozu, the point of departure for Leigh's realism is the fact that individual lives are socially determined, confined; indeed, the lyricism and beauty of human existence lies in how women and men, individually but also enjoined in relationships, emotionally and psychologically negotiate these limits without necessarily showing any conscious recognition that they even exist, much less a conscious effort to break free of them.

Of course there is talk in Peterloo of the forces that are squeezing the characters. But this deeper realist impulse is evident nonetheless. Political, economic, or cultural forces—Thatcherism in Leigh's films from the 1980s and early ’90s, say, or Regency Era authoritarianism, corruption, and economic exploitation and distress in Peterloo—may or may not be named, but they most certainly are actively lived. They are constitutive, internalized as “individual wills,” to borrow from Raymond Williams, rather than passively experienced.34 Again, Leigh's characters are not archetypes but products of the political, economic, and cultural circumstances of their lives.

While Leigh's engagement with various strands of twentieth-century realist cinema is certainly important, so too is the role of early and mid-twentieth-century popular comedic entertainment. For one, he is an admirer of the Ealing comedies of the post – World War II period, such as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1955), and The Ladykillers (1955), which cast a satirical, almost cynical eye on the British class system and the institutions that sustained it. But as Leigh told a reporter, “For me, the natural influences, really early influences, were not only movies, but theater, vaudeville, circus pantomime, and the Marx Brothers, Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges.”35 The “heightened, theatrical, almost vaudevillean” elements characteristic of silent film and early commercial performance arts, he added, are just as important as “my hard, socially realistic way of looking at the world.”36

Leigh's appreciation of vaudeville, Chaplin, and the rest speaks to his desire to entertain, draw people in, get them engaged. Stylistically, the influence has translated into an approach that features “events and dialogue” that seem intentionally exaggerated; many Leigh characters (including some in Peterloo) have odd tics or shrill laughs, are intensely droll or manic, are utterly stuck in place or ominously on the edge. Says one observer of Leigh's work, there is a Brechtian quality, a “quotability” in the actors’ intense characterizations that “[yields] an image of socially conditioned behavior.”37 Indeed, in most Leigh films we can see the dynamic between “heightened” performances that really stand out (that are “quotable,” in other words) and the deeper socially realist structure of the narrative. Actor Timothy Spall's over-the-top embodiment of a wannabe charmer and restaurateur in Life Is Sweet (1990), for example, captures the shallow, dead-end nature of Thatcherite celebrations of entrepreneurialism. In Meantime (1984), an earlier Thatcher-era film, Gary Oldman's Coxy, a tweaked-out, clownish, and nihilistic skinhead provides another, and equally unnerving, representation of the cultural costs of the attack on the collective underpinnings of postwar British society.

With the exception of Peterloo, Leigh's films do not take overt, identifiable political positions—although, as we will see, the takeaways of the former are not quite so straightforward. Perhaps more importantly, his films, including Peterloo, do not point directly to any one way forward, politically speaking. Leigh's characters, writes Quart, are “tangled up in their pasts (social background, upbringing, personalities, and memories), their futures (obligations and responsibilities), and everything around them (jobs, families, and personal forms of expression).”38 The creative labor of characterization, all that research and intense improvisation, produces the realism of Leigh's films, the deeply humane depictions of ordinary people struggling to make lives, raise families, make sense of the world around them as the people that they are, not the archetypical heroes or villains mainstream film has trained us to look for. “I hope I make films,” said Leigh, “where you walk away . . . with work to do, arguments to have, things to worry about, things to care about. In that sense I would regard what I do as political.”39

Ungodly Mobs

As Eileen Jones put it in Jacobin, Peterloo gets off to a “highly dialectical start.” The film begins with intercut scenes of the bugler Joseph (David Moorst), blinking, wobbly, and seemingly in shock at the close of the Battle of Waterloo, with shots of the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, requesting that Parliament grant Wellington a stipend of 75,000 pounds for his valor in battle. On vivid display is not only the overweening vanity of those in power in London, captured so well by actor Robert Wilfort's pinched expression and drawling, aristocratic cadence, but also the impermeable social and moral bubble that was Parliament. Moorst's intense characterization of Joseph, a character based loosely on a war veteran actually killed on St. Peter's Field in August 1819, shows how the war has left him traumatized and uncommunicative and forced to trudge his own way back home to Manchester. No parliamentary tributes for the likes of him, and certainly no stipend.

Peterloo goes further than this simple, two-dimensional contrast of social position and power. It also offers a comically effective portrayal of the particular operations of class and state power in Regency England, from the Home Office in London to the High Tory, Loyalist world of the Manchester magistracy. Looking down sternly from his bench in a Manchester courtroom at a bedraggled washerwoman, magistrate Reverend Charles Ethelston, who is played with “quotable” gusto by Vincent Franklin, asks her how she ended up in a cellar drinking her employer's claret. A ghost in the attic, the poor woman says, sent her rushing down to the cellar in fear. “So,” said Ethelston, preening over the witticism to come, “from a fear of the spirit in the attic, you partook of the spirit in the cellar.” Contemplating a sentence of seven years “overlooking the exotic vistas of Botany Bay,” Ethelston decides the accused is not worth the state's expense. Instead, he proclaims, “you shall be whipped, to shame you and to deter others.” The film cuts to another courtroom, and then another, where craggy, stern, and fearsome old men call on God to justify what counts for the rule of law: hanging for a laborer who took his master's coat; transportation for a servant who had pawned a watch he had won in a card game which then turned out to have been stolen.

Here Leigh's vaudevillian proclivities are in full bloom. Franklin's jowl-shaking, spittle-flying version of Ethelston certainly stands out, with good reason; indeed, in his own time his reputation for High Tory bluster and brutality drew the attention of contemporary satirists and cartoonists. Viewed in his own political habitat of Manchester, Ethelston represents not only the unrestrained power of the magistrates but also a subjective position and a way with words that made clear he took that power to be a natural right.40 In actor Karl Johnson's hands, Lord Sidmouth is a twitchy, stammering Home Secretary, worn ragged by the endless stream of ominous correspondence regarding reformist activities he receives in his London office from his spies and informers in the North. The very thought of the working classes stepping beyond their ordained and subordinate role in English society through their embrace of the movement for parliamentary reform seems to have left Wilfort's Lord Liverpool emotionally, and perhaps physically, constipated. As for the Prince Regent, actor Tim McInnerny's portrayal embodies the narcissism of inherited power; hovered over by his mistress, Lady Conyngham (created by longtime Mike Leigh collaborator Marion Bailey), he can only muster concern for his own neck.

Leigh is famous for creating idiosyncratic characters, and these don't disappoint. But structuring this individualization is the ideological and political common ground of a ruling class: the reform movement was raising a rabble, a mob intent on the destruction of their England. The archives are no doubt filled with panicked phrasing and stilted metaphors that capture the coming horrors. Leigh and his actors have made good use of them. “They speak not of reform, but of destruction,” said Ethelston of the leadership of the movement for radical reform—and not least, he added breathlessly, because they are mobilizing an “ill-educated, ungodly mob,” inciting “them in violent and bloody terms.” Toward the end of the film, Liverpool, Sidmouth, and the Prince Regent (accompanied as always by Lady Cornyngham) share a reflective moment on hearing the news of the soldiers’ handiwork on St. Peter's Field. “Arcadia threatened,” said Sidmouth with a stutter and a sigh. “Albion, doomed, cursed by those malignant agents of malcontent.” A further sign of the “creeping cholera of revolution,” added Liverpool. In between candies offered by Lady Cornyngham and sips of wine, the Prince Regent asks that a letter of appreciation be sent to the magistrates of Manchester. “To England,” he says, raising his glass.

The film firmly connects this collective, mad psychology to the multi-layered, authoritarian apparatus of the state. The actual historical timeline is very condensed, but the presentation effectively captures the overall flow of forces and events. First comes the arbitrary criminalization of poverty in the Manchester courts. Then there is the rampant use of spies, provocateurs, and head-crackers, including the infamous “Oliver the Spy,” and the notorious chief constable of Manchester, Joseph Nadin, both of whom are well-known to historians of the period.41 After a man in working-class dress tosses a potato at the Prince Regent's coach, viewers find Sidmouth effortlessly orchestrating Parliament's suspension of habeas corpus. The men of the Cheshire and Salford yeomanry ready themselves for duty on August 19 by drunkenly toasting God and king in a Manchester alleyway. A bumbling Ethelston reads the Riot Act straight into the din of a meeting attended by many thousands, which is followed within minutes by slaughter.

“Just Plain Daft”

What does the film have to say about the popular reception of the politics of radical reform? One way to address this is to follow Joseph and his family, the only fictionalized characters in the film, as they are drawn into the movement. During their first reform meeting, the camera shows the men of the family seated at a tavern table, looking quite tentative. After their second meeting, the heady swirl of the talk of radical reform catches on. Rephrasing the words they heard from the militant orators John Bagguley, Samuel Drummond, and John Johnston, they inform the women of the family back home that the “people” have the right to petition the king, and to lock him up if he refuses their demands.

Matriarch Nellie (Maxine Peake) then looks up from peeling potatoes: “Who's the people gonna do that?” she asks, then adds, “That's just plain daft.” Later, when the family discusses the coming meeting on St. Peter's Field, Nellie is again skeptical. So there's to be a big march, she says, “nought indoors, in broad daylight.” Daft, she says again, “playing with fire.” It will be an outing, families will be there, says one of her daughters. Sure, and “so will Nadin and his bullies, the swine,” retorts Nellie. She agrees that sitting back and being afraid isn't the answer. Earlier in the film, Nellie had delivered a sharp critique of the Corn Laws—the landlords, she said to her family, “force the prices up, and us poor souls pay five times more for a loaf of bread”—so she was just as angry, if not more so, than the rest. Nor had she lost all hope. But as she ponders the idea of her family attending the great meeting, she tells them, with resignation, “We've got to be careful.”

At other times in the film, this kind of skepticism spills out into public sphere of the reform movement itself, and again, it is women who express it. At a meeting of the newly formed Manchester Female Reform Society, one working-class woman seems intent on actively participating but is baffled by the phrasing of the speeches. She stands and shouts, “I don't know a word you're sayin!” Susannah Saxton, wife of Manchester-based journalist and reformer John Thacker Saxton and secretary of the Female Reform Society, then takes the floor, and again the working-class woman is lost, and again she does not hesitate to speak up. But she nods her head as Saxton moves to a more straightforward class-inflected message. Another woman stands and says, “It's true, it's true is that.” She looks around the room and adds, referring to strikes of 1818, “We come out on strike last year, we was out seven weeks, wasn't we?” And “they beat us back to work,” and “we got nought to show for it, nought.” While these characters appear for brief moments, they are not bit parts but well-developed portrayals that are key to the overall political sociology of the film. In this instance, they burst through as reminders of the decidedly non-abstract reality of working-class life in Manchester, asking what “reform” has to say or, more to the point, do about it.

In another scene, the response of the audience is subtler, but still significant. Bagguley, Drummond, and Johnston address a smallish audience on a sloped field outside town. The time for action has come, insist Bagguley and Drummond. Johnston has the last word and gives an eyepopping speech that pushes the boundaries of tactical sense, especially since, as usual, Nadin is lurking just up the hill and well within earshot. For good measure, Leigh plants Oliver the Spy at the scene, peering over a rock. Now is the time to “rise from your lethargy,” Johnston begins. Citing the example of “our French brethren,” he dramatically slides his finger across his throat and exclaims, “We must punish our mad king and his glutinous offspring by taking—off—their—heads!”

But the camera is as much interested in the reactions of those watching and listening. Indeed, as Johnston moves forward to speak, it is positioned behind him, then moves in front of him, and then back again as he speaks. One shot of the audience shows a row of five men, all chortling or snickering, as if they were responding to a comedic performance. Then, as Johnston exhorts those who cannot arm themselves with more standard weapons to grab “a pair of tongs, or a poker, hot from the fire,” the camera shifts back to the crowd and focuses in on an old man with a clay pipe and staff, laughing enthusiastically along with a few others around him. A brief appearance, certainly, but with a purpose: a good speech, even when it gets some laughs, is important to any movement for reform or even radical transformation. But loose talk of violence mixed in with some demagoguery might be taken seriously only by those in power. Indeed, shortly thereafter Bagguley, Drummond, and Johnston are arrested by Nadin, taken to a cell, and beaten.

Finally, the scenes of the great meeting and the yeomanry's charge are also structured to ensure that viewers consider a perspective from the crowd. The camera follows the weaver/reformer Samuel Bamford with his contingent from his hometown of Middleton, Henry “the Orator” Hunt (Rory Kinnear) in his barouche, and women from the Female Reform Society, into St. Peter's Field. Bamford climbs onto the hustings, only to be unceremoniously removed under Hunt's directions. (Earlier Hunt had forcefully rejected Bamford's suggestion that a few men in his group come to the meeting armed with cudgels for self-defense.) Fed up with the haughtiness of the celebrity reformer, and perhaps also with Hunt's naïveté about the particular nastiness of the Manchester authorities, Bamford (played by actor Neil Bell, who, like Bamford, is from Middleton) turns to Hunt and says: “Here is your audience, Mr. Hunt [or, as the Lancashire accent had it, ‘Mr. ’Unt'], and pray remember, they deserve much more than fine words and empty promises.” What you have to say, he says to Hunt on his way down the ladder, “I have heard many times before.”

By the time the camera finds Nellie, she, her daughters, and Joseph have been separated from Joshua and Robert. As Hunt begins his speech, Nellie strains to see and hear what is going on. “I wish they would tell him to speak up!!,” she exclaims. Daughter Mary turns behind her to a young man and woman who are brother and sister. “Can you see ought?” Esther asks them. No, they say. Nellie turns and asks where they are from. Wigan, they say. As they all squint in the direction of the hustings, she welcomes them and, in an expression of mutuality, offers them a hunk of bread. But Ethelston has already read the Riot Act, and within minutes, the young man from Wigan is sabered in the stomach and falls to the ground. Joseph stands alone in his army-issued red coat, blinking and staggering as if he were back on the battlefield at Waterloo. Up rides a member of the yeomanry, saber drawn. “Hey, soldier boy!” he shouts.

Ye Are Many . . . ?

The final stanza of Shelley's “Mask of Anarchy” begins, “Rise like lions after slumber.” Powerful but sentimental words: the “many” need only to rise from their slumber, or, as the militant John Johnston put it, their “lethargy,” and the tyranny of a corrupt minority will be dispatched. Neither the actual history behind Peterloo, nor Leigh's powerful condensation of it, suggests that the working classes of Lancashire had been asleep. And as for the tyranny, both the history and Leigh's dramatization of it make it quite clear that it was not so easily dispatched.

“It would be wrong,” writes historian John Belchem, “to dismiss” the political method represented by the meeting of August 16, 1819, what he referred to as the “mass platform,” “as an unsuccessful exercise in instrumental politics.” Nonetheless, he adds, as a tactic it “impress[ed] but did not necessarily convert public opinion.” And while it put the state on its heels at times, the mass platform was unable to keep it there long enough to achieve its goals in its own time.42 The characters in Peterloo are all, in their own way, expressions of the limits Belchem identifies, and as they present themselves and interact, those limits come alive as “individual wills.”

We are left with much to ponder and to care about. What becomes of the “multitudes” that had been mustered through the passionate, sometimes demagogic speeches once the mass rallies have ended, or, for that matter, forcibly dispersed, their leaders jailed, and new adherents dead on the ground? Well before the yeomanry had scattered the crowd, viewers were unsure of the hold the spokesmen for reform had on the working people of Manchester: the latter had been impressed, intrigued, and perhaps entertained, but not necessarily convinced or converted. Ideas, and the speech and passion that carries them to the public, very much matter when it comes to building a social movement that can effectively challenge entrenched power and enact meaningful democratic change. But Peterloo also reminds us of Max Weber's famous maxim, from “Politics as a Vocation,” that with passion there must also be perspective and patience. “Politics,” as Weber put it, “is the strong and slow boring of hard boards.”43

As Joseph the bugler, still in his redcoat, bleeds into the trampled ground of St. Peter's Field, Peterloo ends, like most Mike Leigh films, with little resolved. In Naked, Johnny (David Thewlis) spends a moment with his ex-girlfriend that suggests he may be headed for the straight life. But then he steals a wad of cash from her apartment and hobbles down the street alone, back to his rampaging ways. At the close of Vera Drake, intensely shot scenes of a close-knit 1950s working-class family which, thanks to the craft of Mike Leigh, oscillate powerfully between loving closeness, anger and despair, and forgiveness and love again, give way to Vera's grim first days in prison after being arrested as an abortionist. After a brief conversation with two others who had been arrested for the same crime, the camera follows Vera (Imelda Staunton) as she walks up a staircase and down a metal platform, alone. Then there's a simple quick shot of her family, alone, in their small but tidy dining room, drinking tea in silence. In Meantime (1984) Mark pulls back the jacket hood covering his brother Colin's head and discovers what viewers probably suspected. “My brother is a skinhead,” says Mark (Phil Daniels), then pauses and says, “No he ain't.” Colin (Tim Roth) admits that he regrets shaving his head, so on the way out of the room, Mark turns and says, teasingly, “Kojak.” He closes the door, leaving Colin alone. It is a tender moment, and Colin manages a bit of a grin, but he then sinks back into his coat, his bed, his life.

The final scene in Peterloo: a graveyard of a humble church, as Joseph is lowered into the rain-soaked ground. Only the family has gathered. A priest says a prayer, the camera moves slowly from his father Joshua and Nellie, to sister Mary, to brother Robert and his wife Esther, and then back to Nellie. There it lingers. Nellie grasps Joshua's arm tighter still, her expression a combination of deep sorrow and anger. Peterloo ends, like these other Leigh films, with a plea to the viewer to think it through, to imagine the forces that made the characters that inhabit it, to seek understanding of what had happened and why.

Peterloo gets us thinking about class, certainly about the culture and psychology of ruling-class power, and the violence that sustained it. In the process it generates a healthy disdain for it all. But the film also asks, through its solemn denouement, Why is this working-class family now standing alone? What will they make of the costs they now have to bear for having taken part the movement for parliamentary reform? Will they retreat, lose hope as they sink back into the grinding exploitation of early industrial Manchester? Where did that struggle go from here, as the nature of ruling-class power shifted, and the organizing strategies of the many along with it? The archives and the history books based on them have a lot to say about what came next, about how progress was made. But thanks to the craft of Mike Leigh, we are reminded that the project of building working-class power—whether it takes place on the hustings, in the trenches of party or grassroots organizing, or on the shop floor, or all of the above—is a difficult and slow burn that takes a toll. Just as important, in Peterloo we have a cinematic testament to the necessity of keeping the fire lit. And, to borrow again from Weber, “in spite of all.”44

Notes

3.

For a dismantling of this view, and other aspects of the Tory interpretation of Peterloo, see E. P. Thompson, “Thompson on Peterloo.” 

11.

On the rosy nostalgia of the heritage film, see Higson, “Re-presenting the National Past.” 

16.

Leigh has said that there was “absolutely no pressure of any kind” from Amazon executives. See Ritman, “Mike Leigh on His Amazon-Backed ‘Peterloo.’ ” 

19.

McMahon, “Risk and Capitalist Power,” 47. It is important to note that while mainstream film industry leaders love to emphasize how risky it is to make films, the fact of the matter is that with the consolidation that has intensified over the last couple of decades, those claims don't really hold up. Avoiding directors like Leigh keeps it that way.

23.

For one of many discussions of Leigh's method, and comments of actors that have worked with him, see McCregor, “Mike Leigh's Process and Techniques.” 

33.

For an appreciation of some of these films, especially those Leigh made for the BBC, see Quart, “Uniqueness of Ordinary Lives.” 

34.

In a discussion of the role of determination in social theory, Williams (Marxism and Literature, 87) wrote, “Society is . . . never only the ‘dead husk’ which limits social and individual fulfillment. It is always a constitutive process with very powerful pressures which are both expressed in political, economic, and cultural formations and, and to take the full weight of ‘constitutive,’ are internalized and become ‘individual wills.’ ” Film scholar Ray Carney makes a similar point: “Leigh's work dramatizes the individual's capacities for creative performance within inescapable limitations.” Carney, “Stylistic Introduction,” 30.

39.

Sterritt, “Life Is Sweet.”

40.

To see how well the character of Ethleston fits with political culture of regency Manchester, see Poole, Peterloo, chap. 2. Poole writes: “Regency Manchester was controlled by a secretive network of high tory officers, magistrates, and clergy. Behind a veil of paternalist concern they were almost as committed to free markets as their liberal successors, but operated within a framework of authoritarian control. This anomalous situation goes some way towards explaining the intensity of social conflict in the Peterloo years. ‘Cottonopolis,’ the capitol of the factory system, thrived under an ancien regime” (Peterloo, 25).

41.

Based on Poole's research on Nadin, Leigh and actor Victor McGuire's characterization of the man well captures what was surely a menacing character. See Poole, Peterloo, 35 – 37. For Poole's detailed examination of how omnipresent spies and informants were in Lancashire, see Peterloo, chap. 7, which includes an account of Oliver the Spy's activities that nicely complements E. P. Thompson's description in Making of the English Working Class, 649 – 71.

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