Tuesday 6 November 2018

Film Review – Peterloo

I am a fan of Mike Leigh’s films, and I can’t remember not enjoying any of his previous films, but I was a little perturbed by some of the reviews I read of his latest work, Peterloo. Most reviews seem to be a little underwhelmed by the film, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Another concern was the length of the film, as anything over two hours I tend to get a bit bored with, but Peterloo at two and half hours length, just seemed to fly by for me.

I am a Mancunian, albeit living in London for many years now, so the story of Peterloo is familiar to me, it is part, and quite a big part, of the city’s social and political history. The name Peterloo referenced the battle of Waterloo, just four years earlier, when the British army, with considerable help from the Prussian army, finally defeated Napoleon’s French forces.

The film opens with a scene from the battle, with one of the characters Joseph, played by David Moorst, surviving the mayhem. He then returns to his family home in Manchester, tired, hungry and still in uniform. Contrast this to the huge amount of money given to the Duke of Wellington from the nation, for his contribution to winning the battle.

The film then moves to political discussions within Joseph's family, and later at a series of public meetings, where the main issue is a lack of political representation for most people. At this time Manchester didn’t have a single representative in Parliament. This was a time when Britain was moving from a rural farm based economy, to an industrialised one, and Manchester and much of Lancashire was the centre of it.

There are great, passionate speeches being made in this section of film, about the lack of political representation and much grumbling about wage cuts and the Corn Laws, which banned imported grain, and therefore artificially inflated prices for land owners, at the expense of the burgeoning factory workers in the towns and cities. The Corn Laws were eventually repealed in 1849, splitting the Tory party in the process.

There are many fine acting performances, especially Maxine Peake, as the matriarch trying to feed her family and hold things together. The period costume is fantastic too. The sense of social solidarity amongst the working classes and their generosity is captured well in the film. 

Some of the accents and turns of phrase in the film didn’t seem to me to be authentic Manchester, more Lancashire and even in some cases Yorkshire, but these characters could have been from those areas, and Manchester probably didn’t have a distinctive culture that it has today, so maybe I’m being unfair here. I did chuckle at a couple of turns of phrase that I hadn’t heard for a while, like ‘mithering’ (pestering) and someone had a ‘cob on’ (grumpy), which are authentic Manchester.

The people decide to hold a large public protest and march to St Peter’s field in central Manchester, on a Monday, so as to halt work in the cotton mills and other factories, and it is very successful in bringing a large crowd to the protest. The police had been spying on the leaders of the march for some time and the local and national authorities were getting nervous, and they call in the army to confront the marchers.

This was only forty years after the French revolution, so this nervousness was perhaps understandable. But the kind of contempt that ordinary folk are held in by the ruling classes comes through well in the film and the brutality, and not just in final scene, with which they are treated.

The march organisers, decide to invite a charismatic speaker, who some have seen speak in London for increased suffrage, Henry Hunt, a wealthy liberal land owner from Wiltshire, played by Rory Kinnear. He really takes over the whole thing and insists on being the only speaker on the day.

As it happens, the authorities act when the Hunt speaks and he and some of the organisers are arrested, the army, cavalry and infantry, then massacre the crowd, with about 15 people killed and 400–700 injured, including women and children. The crowd eventually scatters and that is the end of things.

It was the end of the film, but not in real life. Such an event as the Peterloo massacre has not taken place since 1819, Percy Shelley wrote his famous poem ‘The Masque of Anarachy,’ ‘rise like lions etc’ after the massacre. The ruling classes were fearful that if there was another occasion such as this, demonstrators would come armed, and it might have led to their overthrow by the people. The liberal (Manchester) Guardian newspaper was founded. Suffrage was gradually extended.

A great film, I highly recommend it, especially if you are of a left wing persuasion.

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