THE PETERLOO Massacre feels important. It’s one of those events that people say they should have been taught in school, and perhaps to a certain degree that belief has coloured some of the positive reviews of Peterloo.
And that’s fair enough – Peterloo is a very effective portrayal of the massacre, placing it in the context of the ordinary lives involved (director Mike Leigh excels at this) as well as the high ideals behind it. In that way, the audience gets a real sense of what makes it such a pivotal moment in British history, which in turns probably makes the film seem more important than it really is.
The film tells the story of the Peterloo Massacre, one of the most shameful events in modern British history. On 16 August 1819, thousands of peaceful protestors gathered on St. Peter’s Field, Manchester to hear Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt – something of a celebrity campaigner – speak on parliamentary representation (at the time, the whole of Lancashire had just two members of parliament). The local establishment, keen to disperse the protest and eliminate any threats to their power, sent in the yeomanry and a detachment of regular soldiers to break up the gathering, but the overzealous soldiers instead launched into a frenzy, and in the confusion 15 people were murdered, and hundreds more injured. In the ensuing scandal, the political establishment entrenched their position, and remained resistant to reform for another twenty years.
The film’s fidelity to the facts is, in some ways, its main weakness. Long, slow scenes of angry people standing around making impassioned speeches are undoubtedly authentic, but give Peterloo a didactic quality that makes it seem more like GCSE revision than a historical drama. These scenes feel more factual than emotive, and although they highlight the urgency of the protest movement, they end up denying the massacre some its emotional punch. It’s a feeling not helped by the pantomime villains the protesters oppose: magistrates cackling in darkened rooms, new-money mill owners with their top hats and scorn, and the corpulent Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny taking the role once played by his Blackadder co-star Hugh Laurie) bloviating from his golden throne.
Mike Leigh must be given credit for avoiding naked parallels with any contemporary politics.
That’s not to say the film is bad. Mike Leigh clearly cares deeply about the subject matter, and the lengths he goes to give us context to the massacre demonstrates just how urgent he feels this story is. Yes, there’s clearly a political motive behind this, but Leigh must be given credit for avoiding naked parallels with any contemporary politics.
He delivers his message with very deliberate anger and authenticity, from the production design to the genuine Lancashire dialect in which the working-class characters speak. Everything looks, sounds and feels genuine, which gives the film a solid grounding in real life. At no point is this most keenly felt than during the massacre itself, which creeps up on the audience without fanfare or dramatic musical cues. It feels chillingly banal, and much more affecting than if it had been artificially foreshadowed. By making it so sudden and so ordinary, the massacre becomes so much more real, and so much more about the ordinary lives caught up in it.
With the massacre over, all the didactics suddenly seems necessary. It’s difficult to see how Peterloo could have better built up tension without detracting from the urgency and authenticity of its message; although the film is very slow at times, the massacre is powerful enough to make it all seem worth the wait.
Peterloo is no hagiography, however. The protestors are portrayed as a fairly disorganised group; their motives are often muddled and unclear, and the film takes care to illustrate the tension between the reformists and the movement’s more violent, radical wing. Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt – a convincing performance by Rory Kinnear – is given an unflattering but realistic portrayal as a difficult, arrogant celebrity.
The closest Peterloo comes to a main character is not Kinnear, but Maxine Peake’s working-class mother. The film makes one of its best narrative choices to close on the funeral of her son – a Waterloo veteran killed in the massacre – which is conducted in near-silence. It’s a potent reminder, told only on Peake’s face, of the event’s human cost and of the moral heart of the cause for which her son died. Too often historical films take are epic or action-packed, and far removed from reality. It is a testament to Mike Leigh’s talent as a director that even in a work as didactic and important as Peterloo, he ensures it starts and ends with sincerely, honestly, and humanely.