In every respect, the film Eisenstein would have made about Peterloo. Mike Leigh's film dramatises the events leading up to and including the Peterloo massacre of August 16th 1819 wherein cavalry troops were deployed against an unarmed crowd resulting in the deaths of 15 people and the wounding of 700 more. Not that Leigh’s film is particularly concerned with dates or names, there isn’t even any text at the end to say the number of dead or what happened to the survivors afterwards. What matters to him is the truth as he sees it, not the facts. Not that the film ever seemed to bend the facts, I believe and agree with every word.
The film it most closely resembles is Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday, taking an ensemble approach to the material showing step by step how every domino was placed, although with more character development along the way and the ultimate conclusion that perhaps the tragedy was inevitable considering the outright hatred displayed by the ruling class towards the citizenry.
The main players are Henry Hunt, the principled and somewhat pompous reformist speaker on the day, along with the other members of the reformist movement arranging the gathering, the crew of magistrates orchestrating the massacre, and an extended family of workers who through their innocent desire for improvement in their condition, find themselves in the crowd on the day. The performances by the players interpreting the figures are uniformly arch and have a period peculiarly to their delivery that is regularly disconcerting, but the cast list is respectable enough to ensure you spend a good deal of the film asking yourself ‘now where do I know HIM from?’ before realising you saw him at the Globe 7 years ago or he played George in Drop the Dead Donkey or she was Twinkle in Dinnerladies.
The film builds towards the event slowly and when it happens there is no single moment where it becomes a reality, no one man who gives the order or lights the fuse, just, to use the film’s own metaphor, pebbles thrown into the sea. The scene itself is effective and as clear as the rest of the film, although not quite up to the standard for this sort of scene set by the Odessa steps and then smashed by the Amritsar massacre’s depiction in Gandhi, still manages to be truly stomach turning and incorporates a single moment of editing worthy of the Russian master.
My only major reservation concerning the film is this: when I compare it to Eisenstein I mean the bad as well as the good. It’s an unashamedly manipulative film, done in a mature way, to be sure, there are no Spielbergian strings or conspiracy mongering, but the magistrates and politicians are such a preposterously grotesque line-up of Punch illustrations and Spitting Image puppets that even with our current conservative front bench it’s hard to connect them to reality. There may well be much truth to the words or the attitudes expressed, but the performances are so arch, comic and bluster-some that unwelcome echoes of Blackadder seep into proceedings. There is certainly a deliberate vein of gallows humour, occasionally literally, that built the characters, but did not always feel appropriate.
Like BlacKkKlansman and 22 July, it's a film that leaves you wanting to immediately walk out and collar people in the street and drag them into for the next performance. Like those other films, it takes historical events and drags them into the modern climate to show how well they fit. These are films that rise to meet the challenge of today's world, to tell their stories with passion, urgency and moral outrage without losing their level heads and gazes. The least audiences might do is watch.