Peterloo – Film Review by Frank L
Directed by Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh comes from Salford which is in Greater Manchester. So in deciding to make a film about the massacre which took place on 16th August 1819 at St. Peter’s Fields , Manchester (1819) commonly known as Peterloo, Leigh was returning to his roots.
The ending of the Napoleonic wars with the battle of Waterloo in 1815 resulted in a dire shortage of work and a consequent shortage of food throughout the Kingdom. The film begins with a young, but deeply traumatised survivor, Joseph (David Moorst), returning, from the battle fields of Waterloo, to his parents in their poverty stricken home in the back streets of Manchester. Tellingly, Leigh does not grace Joseph or any members of his family with a surname. He contrasts Joseph’s grim homecoming with the decision of the Parliament to give to the Duke of Wellington, who had led the victorious army at Waterloo, the sum of £750,000.00 in gratitude for his services. Leigh, throughout this two and a half hour epic, highlights the very different worlds which the foot soldiers and their families occupied after the ending of the Napoleonic wars and the life enjoyed by the ruling elite and the officer class.
In particular, the emerging cotton mills were sweat shops in which the labouring class was at the mercy of the rapacious mill owner. The mill owners and the newly emerging industrialists were an increasingly powerful, new economic grouping. The very different prospects for these two different groups is the battle on which Leigh concentrates. The aristocratic world is represented by the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson), who viewed any expression of reform as insurgency. In contrast, the pampered and powdered world of the Prince Regent (Tim McInnerney) and his mistress Lady Conyngham is shown in all its self-indulgent frivolousness in several well drawn cameos. The labouring classes are personified by Joseph and his family, in particular his resourceful mother Nellie (Maxine Peake). The organisers of the meeting in St. Peter’s Field come from higher up the social scale and include skilled artisans from various trades, each of whom Leigh graces with a surname with at he pinnacle an oratorical performer Henry Hunt (Roy Kinnear) who has come from London to engage the crowd.
The film lasts over two and a half hours and the events at the meeting a mere twenty minutes. There are many scenes where strategy about the meeting is discussed. The strength of these scenes is that they show the diversity in education and economic substance of those who wanted to attend the meeting. As a matter of cinematic presentation, like such meetings in reality, they are somewhat repetitive verging on the boring. But substantive change for the good only takes place by many people working laboriously for it. It does not take place in a twinkling of an eye.
With that reservation, Leigh has produced a timely reminder of one very important public mass meeting on the road to democratic change. Democracies are currently under pressure from within and from outside. Leigh has created a timely reminder of the dangers which exist when there were very few restraints on the exercise of executive power against ordinary citizens in pursuit of their rights. This is a timely reminder of the sufferings endured by many for the privileges which are enjoyed today.