Nearly 200 years on from one of the bloodiest political events in England, the story of the Peterloo Massacre remains widely unknown. It’s not taught in schools, nor is there much acknowledgement by way of a memorial in Manchester itself.
It was this state of affairs, along with the still timely nature of the story, that inspired Mancunian Mike Leigh to write and direct this harrowing historical epic. His is the first film to bring this story to the big screen.
On the 16th of August 1819, an estimated 60,000 of Manchester’s working class gathered in St Peter’s Field in central Manchester for a political demonstration, demanding representation for the city in parliament. Famed orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) had travelled from London to address the crowd, but naturally authorities were opposed to this and feared a revolt. In an attempt to apprehend Hunt and break up the gathering, the Yeomanry charged into the crowd on horseback. People were trapped and amidst the chaos, 15 were killed and hundreds injured. The term Peterloo was coined by a local reporter as an ironic comparison with the battle of Waterloo, which took place merely 4 years before.
The film opens with the end of the battle of Waterloo. A young man named Joseph (David Moorst) stands alone in a green meadow, bodies strewn across the bloody battlefield, playing his bugle in melancholy victory. Suffering from PTSD, we follow Joseph as he returns home to Manchester and struggles to settle back into his home where we’re introduced to his family and many of the locals. Joseph’s mother Nellie (Maxine Peake) is a stoic character, cautious of the talk of reform and change. She believes in action and not in ‘men blowing hot air about’. Whilst we follow strands of Nellie and Joseph’s stories, we also follow strands of stories from numerous other characters. Peterloo is a large ensemble piece (with a cast list of around 100), constantly reminding us of the bigger picture.
Throughout the film, Leigh represents the working class with stark realism and absolute detailed conviction, akin to his compatriot Ken Loach, creating a powerful depiction of Lancashire in the early 19th century. From the set design to the stains on characters’ teeth, the authenticity immerses us in the mundane, everyday routines of these people, amidst the backdrop of rising political tension. In a recent interview, Leigh called this film an anti-period drama. A period-drama, not about lords and ladies in large manor houses, but about common people with common struggles.
Not only do the cast deal with long, dialogue-heavy scenes, they portray their characters with pathos and authenticity. Without this, the film simply wouldn’t work as a credible drama. These people weren’t heroes and they’re not painted as such, but they were normal people who believed in their right to the freedoms that we so easily take for granted today.
We also see a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the House of Parliament and the judiciary’s which discuss the state of affairs and the mounting fears of insurrection. Whilst it would be easy to paint a simple juxtaposition of heroes and villains, Leigh is at pains to contextualise the divide between rich and poor. Whilst Peterloo has an inherent Socialist message, it doesn’t spoon-feed answers to its audience, but instead seeks to ask questions about the status-quo and how we as citizens may challenge or perpetuate it.
Peterloo is akin to many disaster films in that it builds inexorably towards a climactic tragedy. As the tension mounts both in parliament and in the streets in the lead up to the demonstration, the sense of dread and anticipation does with it. When it does arrive, the on-screen massacre of Peterloo is viscerally brutal and bloody. Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope are intent on forcing the audience into the horror of the event, as if we were really there with them.
Beyond the artistic merit of Peterloo, it deserves recognition for telling a story that should’ve been told a long time ago.
Rating - 8.5/10
Peterloo is released nationwide on 2nd November 2018.
Review by Dave Howarth