A history lesson that resonates with life for millions today
Mike Leigh’s Peterloo arrives at a time when the political boundaries are being reshaped in the UK, 200 years on from a massacre that led to an historic change in voting rights. There is uproar about the proposed changes for the 2020 election (when isn’t there?) but Leigh’s film takes us back to a time when the sort of representation we now assume as the norm had to be fought for in every sense of the word.
Leigh’s biggest film to date (he was working to an Amazon budget of $18m) is a change from the usual small scale dramas we have become accustomed to from the director over the past few decades. Even though he’s working on a larger canvas Leigh has lost none of his vigour. Peterloo highlights an event most of us today are unaware of, a period that correlates to many people’s political and social concerns today, and a class often overlooked when it comes to period dramas.
Joseph (David Moorst) is seen on the field of battle at Waterloo in 1815, as Napoleon and his army are finally defeated following a bloody and brutal conflict. He’s the entry point for our immersion into working class life in Manchester initially seen through the eyes of his family. His mother, Nellie (flawlessly played by Maxine Peake) bargains at the local market to make ends meet, while her husband slaves away at a local cotton mill.
It becomes immediately apparent Leigh is drawing parallels with the impoverished people of the early 19th century and today’s working class who have been crushed under the boot heel of Conservative austerity. He heads into the corridors of power in Parliament where the Duke of Wellington is injudiciously awarded £750,000 for his defeat of Napoleon, while in the Northern District local magistrates hand out horribly disproportionate sentences to locals who have no representation and zero hope of securing justice.
The story gradually winds its way through a four year period towards the Peterloo Massacre (named after its St. Peter’s Field location in Manchester and the carnage of Waterloo). It was an event due to be headlined by Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt (Rory Kinnear in superb form), a radical political activist with an impressive turn of word and an ego to match. Across the board the performances strike the right note and Leigh provides a lot of different perspectives, with some proposing violence and revenge on the ruling classes who saw the working man as nothing but unruly scum trying to con their way into doing less work for more money.
Although running at a lengthy two-and-a-half hours, Peterloo never feels laborious and carefully builds towards its horrific centrepiece. After starting on the field of battle in Waterloo, we end on another filled with ordinary working folk who have travelled for miles to peacefully demonstrate. Once soldiers on horseback (some of whom are plied with drink beforehand) march out into a gathering of thousands, Hunt and several other organisers are instantly arrested. Chaos quickly ensues amongst the crowd as the soldiers lose their heads and begin savagely murdering unarmed men, women and children in a sequence that is emotional charged and utterly harrowing to watch.
Aside from the 154 minutes it is up onscreen, some people may find Peterloo difficult to engage with given the talky nature of the film. It features a lot of impassioned speeches from various men and women reformers involved in pushing for electoral change. The cast handle the verbose language extremely well and Leigh even throws in a joke or too at its expense when some members at the meetings complain they cannot understand what is being said. There are a number of loquacious rants also heard amongst the elite, with a letter written to the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson) by Magistrate Rev Etlhelson (Vincent Franklin) particularly standing out.
What Leigh’s film also speaks to is the need for people to organise and come together to evoke change. Ellie says that words will do nothing and once the demonstration is over things will just return to the way they were. The votes we are able to cast today are a direct result of the people who died trying to affect change. We live in a time when our disillusionment with those in power is at an all time high – the opportunity to participate in an election now a liberty dangerously taken for granted. John-Paul Hurley’s John Saxton sums it up best when he quotes Plato early in the film: “We can forgive children who are scared of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”
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