‘Peterloo’ a radical call for change on a grand scale

And each dweller, panic-stricken,
Felt his heart with terror sicken
Hearing the tempestuous cry
Of the triumph of Anarchy.

For with pomp to meet him came,
Clothed in arms like blood and flame,
The hired murderers, who did sing
`Thou art God, and Law, and King.

We have waited, weak and lone
For thy coming, Mighty One!
Our purses are empty, our swords are cold,
Give us glory, and blood, and gold.’–Percy Bysshe Shelley

English majors lucky enough to have been assigned Shelley beyond “To a Skylark” and “Ode to the West Wind” will recognize “The Mask of Anarchy,” in which ninety-one quatrains advance an allegory condemning one of the worst massacres on British soil. Although a triumph for the British monarchy, the costly wars against Napoleon in Europe had drained the coffers. The passage of the Corn Laws stirred a hungry populace in a manner that spooked landed gentry and His Majesty’s Government to its core. Suffusing every gesture was a fear of a reprise of the French Revolution, of which the Napoleonic Wars were its terrifying apotheosis.

Mike Leigh’s film, set in the summer of 1819, records the moment when the Manchester Patriotic Union and sundry groups, ad hoc and organized, called for a rally to protest conditions. After years of acclaim for his piquant observations on modern British life, Leigh turns to the nineteenth century for the second consecutive film (2014’s marvelous Mr. Turner is the other); the widening of his canvas results in a slight constriction in the depth of his portraiture, but portraiture isn’t the point of Peterloo. How men (and women, crucially), bound by chords of outrage, gather and debate despite the overwhelming might reared against them energizes one of his best films, and, as of June 2019, among his lowest grossing. Amazon Studios may regret forking over the $18 million, but I can see up there the money ably spent on a near-great picture.

Eschewing specificity for scope and rhetoric, Leigh got too far ahead of his audience. It’s clear from the first quarter when Joseph (David Moorst), a Waterloo vet, returns to his family of Manchester mill workers in the grips of what we would now diagnose as PTSD. The siblings he hasn’t watched grown up and the nieces he’s never met pry him for anecdotes that he’s too shaken to tell. Is he the protagonist? Hardly. What about Sir John Byng (Alastair Mackenzie), the general whom the Home Office satraps assign to quell the signs of unrest? Gone from wide swaths of the film. Reviews have cited Tolstoy as Leigh’s influence because “scope” and “Tolstoy” look synonymous; a better reference point is Trollope, writing a few decades later, who excelled at types instead of characters because property and the fear of losing it doth make types of us all. The types harden into caricatures by the time the Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny), a painted bird turned on by what powers he can flex, enters the scene demanding obedience from his lowest subjects — an obedience that Acting Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson) wants exacted in blood, especially after learning from spies that radical orator Henry Hunt is on the scene: “We cannot allow this Wiltshire peacock to stir the masses under the spurious claim of Parliamentary reform.” Hiss!

It’s to Leigh’s credit that he gives other historically overlooked groups a voice. The Manchester Female Reform Society made vital contributions; in an amusing scene, their leader has to dumb down her speeches for the sake of her skeptical audience because she speaks in abstractions (the biggest skeptic is Nellie, Joseph’s mother, who nevertheless joins). No less important was the role of the press, which recognized the legitimacy of the petitioners’ claims. The massacre inspires the creation of the Manchester Guardian, known since 1959 as a certain liberal newspaper several friends write for.

I suppose the restless can argue that the last third of Peterloo contains a scene too many of the Manchester crowds preparing to march while the fine editor Jon Gregory cross-cuts to the powers-that-be, with their wigs and rich top coats and fine claret, giving the fatal orders; but without them the inevitability — a certain economic philosopher would call the historical inevitability — of the clash seems less chilling. It’s in these sequences where forty years of concentrating on individual faces gives Leigh the authority to transform these faces into an assembly, rejecting atomization. Dick Pope’s camera captures the hysteria without resorting to pretty pictures. Not lost on the audience: the signs held aloft call for universal suffrage and “A Parliament For All.” These are the calls to action that the Home Secretary, Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, and the Prince Regent suppress. Peterloo does more than that: it argues that the reactionary forces purposely read their orders for the crowd to disperse (from a window!) while Hunt’s basso thundered; they knew the crowd wouldn’t hear it but acted as if the order were ignored, giving them the legal right to call in the yeomanry. Leigh shows something I haven’t quite seen in a battle sequence: people getting stabbed casually, as one might skewer a kielbasa, then writhing in agony as they die slowly. Eighteen men and women would succumb in this fashion.

Not many people saw Peterloo in its late spring run, but now that it’s on Amazon I hope viewers can appreciate how the film is a logical next step. It stumbles: McInnerny plays the Prince Regent as if his effeminacy inspired his villainy; and I counted two instances where Leigh stages actors as real-life Vermeer paintings. But those who want a lucid rendering of a historical pivot point that respects eloquence and regards society as an organism nought for stratifying should give Peterloo their time.

GRADE: A-

Peterloo is streaming on Amazon Prime.

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