So there I was in Soho Square on a cold and rainy morning, nibbling my complimentary almond croissant and eagerly looking forward to the advance preview of Mike Leigh’s new historical epic Peterloo. This People’s Uprising of 1819, and its brutal suppression by a wealthy, uncaring and out-of-touch metropolitan elite, took place precisely 200 years before we finally leave the EU next year. And thrilling if traumatic times they were too.
‘An old, mad, blind, despised and dying King… A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field…’ wrote Shelley in some of his most ferocious lines.
So Leigh surely saw Peterloo as a powerful metaphor for our own Brexit revolt —the vote that rang out around the world — and all the other thrilling nationalist, populist uprisings that have taken place since against the ‘old, mad, blind’ corrupt, self-serving and tottering international-liberal order — otherwise known as the Confraternity of St Bono. Bring it on!
But alas, Peterloo is a tedious 150-minute clunker of a movie, so smartly demolished by this magazine’s film critic, Deborah Ross, last week. It even includes that most dismal trope of so many a duff film: when people are particularly miserable, they stand around in the rain without hats on.
Mike Leigh’s man-of-the-people act is, of course, preposterous. He’s almost as much a trusted member of the establishment as the ‘radical’ playwright Sir David Hare. Leigh, OBE, FRSL, is hardly going to celebrate Brexit, is he? Besides, his more recent films generally combine all the sparkling wit and joie de vivre of Ken Loach, with all the incisive political insight of Waffle the Wonder Dog. The only time Leigh has made a good film was when he dropped the predictable politics and gave us his delightful take on Gilbert and Sullivan in Topsy-Turvy.
Otherwise, his films include such works as the excruciating Happy-Go-Lucky, about the hatefully jolly Poppy, memorably described by one critic as being ‘pathologically incapable of shutting her fatuous trap for two fucking seconds’; All or Nothing, which largely seemed to feature Timothy Spall in need of a shave, and people wailing ‘It ain’t fair!’; and Vera Drake, an impassioned plea for the killing of unborn children, with Imelda Staunton going around giving out free abortions to women like they’re Smarties. ‘Just a little soap and water up there dearie, and you’ll be as right as rain.’ One infuriated real-life midwife lambasted it as so ‘wildly inaccurate’ as to be dangerous. ‘The film promotes the idea that abortion is easy — quick, clean, painless and successful. It is not.’ Still, it won the Golden Lion at Venice, so it must be sound, yes?
No: the writer and director of Peterloo knows which side his bread his buttered, and though he might support the People 200 years back, he wouldn’t be so foolish as to do it today.
Which presumably explains why he was one of the many well-heeled luvvies who, as well as being in receipt of many millions of pounds in taxpayers’ money from Brussels to support their feeble and self-indulgent little works, put their names to the famously pompous open letter to the government warning against Brexit. Thus aligning themselves with, er, J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs.