They’d sell you the air in Manchester. God knows why you’d want to buy it, but that’s Manchester: gritty, mercantile. These days of course the thing Manchester really wants to sell you is history. The city that once produced a quarter of the world’s calicos now produces a third of the planet’s industrial heritage museums. Professionals dream of installing a Power Shower in the exact corner of a converted mill where Victorian children once had their limbs ripped off. History retails at 50 quid per square inch. Slums are now luxury condos. Around the cholera-rich rivers of the 19th century, you can now bear witness the oppression of the people by buying a £4.20 cappuccino and an Emily Pankhurst fridge magnet.
So watching Mike Leigh’s Peterloo – a new film about the vicious 1819 massacre of a peaceful protest of mill workers by the local yeomanry – can frankly be a bit of a strange experience. It didn’t help that I saw it in HOME, the megabucks glass cube (sorry, “arts centre”) nestled in a shiny corporate landscape of chain bars – hipster central, in other words. (One of the streets is actually called Tony Wilson Place).
Unfortunately for the film, cobbled backyards, vintage costumes and cart tracks are also the kind of landscape I’ve learnt to subconsciously associate with various species of 21st century twat: Northern Quarter bartenders, street food entrepreneurs, background DJs. Considering that this is a film about the plight of the working poor the effect is a little unintentional. In some of the outdoor scenes I half expected to glimpse a Dirty Burger stall in the background, or for someone to lay a laptop on one of the rough plank benches and ask the haggard Maxine Peake for a Flat White. This isn’t helped by the fact that almost all the men have magnificent “Peak Beard” facial hair; you’re supposed to believe they’re grimy mill workers but you can’t escape the feeling they should be serving you a £12 Margarita. Part of me expected to see someone wandering in and out of the slain bodies at the film’s climax looking for somewhere to plug in their phone.
Still, what about the film? Well, it’s a mixed bag: interesting in places but uneven, and much, much too long. There’s a whole universe of characters who never get developed. Some pop up for a single scene and then disappear. Others even seem to cancel other characters out: there’s much made of a spy doing a sort of covert-ops sting on the protesters, for example, with dark shadowy meetings in dark shadowy tunnels – but it’s largely pointless because the local constable (Big! Fat! Dark cloak!) is hanging around outside like a bad smell anyway, clearly listening, in what must make him the shittiest spy in history. In fact during almost every bloody meeting in the film this constable seems to be hanging around at the edges, like a slightly creepy dumped boyfriend who hasn’t got the message yet. In one scene where Maxine Peake cuddles up with her husband I was surprised not to see him sharing the pillow.
Normally I’m usually someone who hates historical films because they reduce that nebulous thing called history into a series of clichéd and inaccurate set pieces. Or worse, shoehorn some crap modern “empowerment” sub-plot in. Were this not Mike Lee I might have gone in, for example, dismally expecting a late stage reversal as some plucky teenage mill worker heroine suddenly dons a bandana and singlehandedly wipes out the 15th King’s hussars to a soundtrack by Beyonce (available on iTunes).
“Bollocks,” I always think to myself. “This was a product of historical, social and economic forces and was actually much more complex and nuanced.”
Well, Peterloo’s got nuance and complexity. It’s got so much nuance and complexity that frankly you sometimes wonder what the fuck is going on. Be warned: if you’re not already an expert on obscure religio-political movements and the fluctuation of Regency-era grain tariffs (believe it or not, some people aren’t) this might stretch you. Yes, it’s true that history until recently has mostly been made by self-important men in crowded rooms making farty speeches. But that doesn’t make those speeches any less farty (nor the men any less self-important). At one point Maxine Peake’s family discuss the Corn Laws in a bit of background exposition so creakingly functional I half expected to see footnotes flashing up and a pop-up request to donate to Wikipedia.
What about the good things though? Well the historical period is fascinating. We get a mesmerizing range of co-existing social landscapes here that convey just how conflicted that age really was: an age that could see the squalor of 19th century industry interrupted by full-costume Royal hussars, that could support the ancestral offices of the Guardian and a burgeoning modern press at the same time as a Prince Regent with a private love-nest resembling Ancien Regime Versailles. Performances are excellent – including someone I know, Neil Bell, playing a bumptious northerner called Samuel Bamford who’s smitten with a self-regarding orator called Henry Hunt. (Actually this had extra comedic value for me at the thought of my friend licking the arse of some silver-tongued southern pansy, and not, for example, sticking a glass in his posh fucking face, though I have to admit this is probably a bit of a niche reaction).
Ultimately it’s a slightly clunky telling of an important tale, but that doesn’t mean the message isn’t still important. As I walked out I looked around at the glittering hipster metropolis of modern Manchester, with its cliff walls of luxury apartments for the rich and footballer bling masking the poverty-stricken council estates and fucked, high-unemployment, satellite towns beyond; maybe things haven’t changed so much after all.