Peterloo (2018)

Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is a history lesson that almost 200 years later seems still not to have been learned.

Plus Ça Change

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Peterloo is, of course, a politically engaged film, agitproppy even, as Leigh recounts a little-taught historical event through the prism of a poor, working-class family, with Maxine Peake as the matriarch, Nellie.

In the 19th century, Lancashire weavers are slaves to the industrial revolution, their wages are being cut and the Corn Laws mean bread prices are rising. The Manchester magistrates give harshly unjust sentences to the impoverished working class for minor misdemeanours. A popular reform movement grows to demand a member of parliament to represent Manchester and for the right to one man, one vote.

A huge public meeting is planned for St Peter’s Field in Manchester on a Monday in August 1819 and a well-known orator and advocate for reform, Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), a gentleman and landowner from the south of England, is invited to speak. But the upper classes fear this as 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 and caring even less. The throwing of a potato at the bloated, 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 set on beautiful Saddleworth Moor – traditional melodies played on instruments of the period – between the 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, although Peake, despite her poverty-stricken disguise, is distractingly recognisable. The crowd scenes of the massacre are brutal; expertly and movingly handled.

Peterloo is huge achievement by Mike Leigh and an overdue and absorbing socialist recreation of an important historical event that’s rarely aired yet, sadly, seems perennially relevant. Even such a violent suppression of a peaceful demonstration seems strangely unsurprising today.

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

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