BFI LFF Review: Peterloo (2018)

The irony of Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is that almost 200 years later, people are marching this week for practically the same reasons – to demand a people’s vote.

Liberty or Death?

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Set in August 1819, Peterloo is, of course, a politically engaged film, agitproppy even, as Leigh recounts history through the prism of a poor, working class family, with Maxine Peake as the matriarch, Nellie.

The context is that the working class Lancashire weavers are slaves to the industrial revolution, their wages are being cut and the Corn Laws mean bread prices are rising. The magistrates lay down harsh sentences for minor misdemeanours. A popular reform movement grows to demand a member of parliament to represent Manchester and for the right of one man, one vote. A huge public meeting is planned for St Peter’s Field in Manchester on a Monday in August and a well-known orator and advocate for reform, Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), a gentleman and landowner, is invited to speak. But the upper classes fear an incitement to sedition and a threat to their grasp on power. The organisers ignore warnings of violence to come. The mill owners are incensed that their workers are missing a working day.

As Hunt starts to speak, the local magistrates set armed troops on the defenceless crowd of men, women and children – entire families peacefully gathered. Sabre-wielding cavalry charge, slashing and stabbing indiscriminately. The crowd, unable to escape, are massacred. Hunt is arrested.

Leigh cuts back and forth between the Lancashire working men and women, the organisers, the local Manchester journalists, the local magistrates, and the politicians in London. General Sir John Byng (Alastair Mackenzie) has been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire despite scarcely knowing where Manchester is. The throwing of a potato at the dissolute Prince Regent’s (Tim McInnerny) carriage is taken more seriously than an armed attack on 60,000 citizens asking for their rights.

There are musical interludes – traditional melodies played on instruments of the period – between action scenes and the eloquently phrased, but rather leaden, political debates. Out of a superb ensemble cast, Kinnear is well cast as Hunt, the middle-class figurehead that the workers’ movement needed to get heard but Peake, despite her poverty-stricken persona, is distractingly recognisable. The crowd scenes are brutal, expertly and movingly handled. Overall, the film is an overdue and absorbing socialist recreation of an important historical event that’s rarely aired yet still seems perennially relevant.

Peterloo premiered in the UK at the BFI London Film Festival on 17 and 19 October 2018 and is released on 2 November 2018 in the UK.

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