British director Mike Leigh builds his movies more than he writes them. He starts with one or two actors doing improvisations, and then works outward to bring in more actors improvising more characters. In one of his present-day pictures, an actor might say, “I take driving lessons,” so another actor will be brought in to create a driving instructor. Leigh might spend six months or more developing a film in this way. And he did that with his new film Peterloo, which is unlike such films as High Hopes, Secrets and Lies, or Happy Go Lucky because it’s based in an actual event – and it has 160 characters. It’s a big film.
In August 1819, some 60,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, England. They were farmers and millworkers at a time when workers were badly abused in England, and they came from all over the towns and countryside to demonstrate for the right to vote. Only 2 percent of England’s people had the vote at the time, and that 2 percent were not cheered to see so many people riled up over the issue.
The protesters were peaceful and unarmed; they included many women and also children. They were attacked first by what was called the yeomanry – something of a local militia, many of them drunk – and then by actual troops. By accounts, 18 were killed and about 500 wounded. The event was called the Peterloo Massacre, because observers and participants considered the unprovoked slaughter a parody of the great battle of Waterloo, only four years earlier, when the British finally stopped Napoleon.
In the short run, demonstrators were punished, some leaders put in jail. But in the longer run, more people got the vote and news reporting became important. The London Times covered the event well, and the massacre helped give birth to what was The Manchester Guardian for over 150 years and is now known simply as The Guardian newspaper.
But Mike Leigh is not interested in making a history text or, heaven forbid, a docudrama. He digs into what the people may have been like, not as ornamental figurines, but as human beings driven by their needs, their hopes, their resentments and jealousies, their disappointments – and by their humanity.
The main speaker, a labor radical named Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) is demanding and self-important. He arrives in Manchester to learn that he will not speak for another couple of days . He worries – and he’s probably right – that his stay in a public hotel will become known and will put him in danger. So, he demands a private house, and when one of the organizers brings him home – it’s to a wife not delighted to have an unexpected house guest, especially one who has many urgent needs for his comfort.
Peterloo is full of unexpected characters and situations – meetings of women arguing politics and strategy to support the men, articulate political discussions among thoroughly uneducated people, who refer to political tracts and classics of literature. Much of the conversation in the film is far more subtle and informed than a lot of what we hear now in our loud debates.
And, it’s obvious that Mike Leigh is not just making a film about an event from 200 years ago, about a critical moment in the history and development of democracy in Britain. Peterloo is about now, when people are cynical about the vote – something that might make the Peterloo demonstrators turn in their graves. Leigh said that the English Brexit vote came while he and his crew were preparing Peterloo, and that those events only convinced him that it was the right time for a movie about voting and the vital responsibilities of citizenship.
Leigh also knows that Peterloo is not just about Britain. Other places in the English-speaking world are also struggling over profound questions of democracy.