UK Premier of Peterloo | HOME | October 17th

There was something dizzying about watching Peterloo mere metres from the site of the massacre itself, which commemorates its 200th anniversary next year. The magisterial glow of Manchester seem to shine from between the bricks with just a little more intensity after I came blinking out of Mike Leigh’s epic retelling. I was numbed, quietened, angered. The film, while not perfect, had triumphed in its main goal of whipping away the curtain to expose the shame and brutality of that catastrophic event. I hope the people of modern Manchester flock to see it in droves.

Leigh has lamented the non-existence of Peterloo on curricula and its general disappearance from popular memory. On August 16th, 1819, mounted troops of Hussars and Yeomanry charged into a peaceful gathering of protestors in St. Peter’s Field, where the Midland Hotel now stands. Sabres flashed and hooves trampled and the resulting chaos saw hundreds injured and eighteen recorded deaths (there were likely many more). It was a sickening act of state violence against unarmed working class people; a hotbed mix of wild misjudgement and frightening brutality. It soon became known as ‘Peterloo’, an ironic reference to the Battle of Waterloo some four years previous. This title was met with approval by the powers-that-be who spun it as a victory over insurrection and sedition until the aftermath died away.

Leigh’s brave and honest film opens at Waterloo, but the patient camera doesn’t sweep out for a wide and vainglorious vista. It opts instead to focus on Joseph, a lone bugler, staggering across the exploding field; unarmed, helpless and traumatised. He survives, endures a gruelling walk home to Manchester to be reunited with his mother Nellie (a pitch-perfect Maxine Peake), and the rest of his mill-working family. The nearly-mute Joseph becomes our motif throughout; his blood red Waterloo jacket, the only splash of colour against the murk of the industrial town, is our portent of things to come.

Thus Leigh sets out his vision: this is to be, primarily, a film about the people. We are not here to indulge in the action of the massacre, nor to valourize it, or reify it. We are here to witness it. And so Leigh gives us a huge ensemble of characters that stretch far beyond Joseph’s family. Each is patiently given their screen-time and no one figure emerges as a hero, nor do we get a singular arch-villain. For Leigh, history is much more complicated than simple Hollywood binaries. Even the star orator Henry Hunt, whose fame in 1819 drew the thousands to St. Peter’s Field, does not get cinematic ascendency and is carefully painted (literally at one point) in an ambiguous light. He compels adoration and attention but is cold and rude to his northern hosts. Rory Kinnear delivers the role of this ‘Wiltshire peacock’ with outstanding subtlety.

The result is a richness of historical detail as we leap from mills to parliament, from inns to printing presses, from homes to moors, each gorgeously framed by cinematographer Dick Pope. We are welcomed into working class life, with kneaded bread, stuffed pipes, a trio of musicians playing fiddles by the river. None of this feels hokey or staged; there’s a heart and simplicity to it, filled out by the ‘sithees’ and ‘areets’ of the rich northern accents (and a commitment to a northern cast), which all serves to suffuse the film with a rare authenticity. As a northern lad meself, it were reet lovely to ‘ave, ah tell thee.

That being said, the film is not perfect. There’s a few too many instances of clunky dialogue to explain concepts like the Corn Laws and habeas corpus which clang hard against the aforementioned authenticity. Also, about a third of the way in, the scenes get a little repetitive, some might say arduous, as we move from orator to orator passionately delivering what amounts to pretty much the same speech to pretty much the same crowds. It may be overkill, but it is a brave choice and, after a while, it is rewarded with welcome variation. There is time given over to the Female Reformers, precursors to the Suffragettes, and a careful consideration of a trio of younger men who edge dangerously close to inciting violent protest in their ‘Liberty or Death’ speech up on Saddleworth Moor. We also edge a little too close to caricature at times, particularly with the magistrates and the buffoonish Prince Regent. The latter is ably played by Tim McInnery, but he has his trademark smirk in tow – which anyone with a passing knowledge of Blackadder may find a bit distracting. Peterloo is infinitely stronger when it is being infinitely subtler.

When we arrive at the massacre, however, the film soars. The patient build-up has created unbearable tension, so we need nothing further than to be shown our characters in turn and the events as they unfold. When the mounted troops charge they do so without fanfare, almost without warning, and, like the gathered protestors, we can only bear witness, bewildered and sickened. It is neither exaggerated nor sanitised, it just happens. In the midst of it we are given new characters, unnamed but brutally there. A man stabbed as he rests on fallen logs, a Hussar shouting for restraint, desperate that ‘the people can’t get away’. These are the testimonies of survivors given a credence long deserved. And then Leigh takes us to his ending, which I won’t spoil, but there is a clear statement in what remains unsaid. After, I walked up the road to the small blue plaque that marks the location and asked unanswerable questions. Leigh did not attempt to answer or soften them. He was right not to do so.

by David Hartley

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