Apart from 2019 being the two hundredth anniversary of the Peterloo massacre when 60,000-80,000 people marched to St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, director Mike Leigh may have seen parallels with Brexit: two examples of British society sharply polarised to breaking-point and possible violence.
The director’s clear aim is to demonstrate injustice through a systematic, step-by-step reconstruction of the detailed events building up to the debacle. He wants us to be in no doubt that high grain prices after the Napoleonic Wars and continued restrictions on imports owing to the infamous Corn Laws led to intolerable hardship amongst the working poor. This made them receptive to the call for “one man one vote” (women supporters seeming to accept without question that they were not to be included in this) and the creation of a new constituency in the burgeoning city of Manchester to rectify the out-dated situation in which the whole of Lancashire only had two MPs.
Mike Leigh is of course famous for his minutely observed dramas involving the interplay between ordinary people, developed through painstaking improvisation. It is unclear to what extent the actors were encouraged to shape the dialogue in this case. I rather formed the impression that Mike Leigh has drawn heavily on the speech patterns and existing political writings of activists of the day. Certainly, some of the soldiers’ reported instructions are included verbatim: “Good God, Sir, don’t you see they are attacking the Yeomanry; disperse the meeting!” and “For shame! For shame! Gentlemen: forbear, forbear! The people cannot get away!”
The director is right in thinking that Peterloo has become a forgotten blot on our history, neglected in schools, but I agree with the critics who find his approach too didactic rather than dramatic. There are simply too many lengthy rabble-rousing speeches, all tending to bludgeon us with the same points. Yet it was interesting to see the divide between those making the simple case for the vote, and the more radical young hotheads who wanted to march on London with a petition, and depose the Prince Regent and his mad father George III with violence in the event of a refusal to meet their demands. The orator Henry Hunt invited to address the crowd brought another angle to events with his flamboyant style and egotistical self-regard, yet more worldly-wise, shrewder assessment and awareness of the dangers of risks involved. In the main, the other characters tended to be stereotypes in the case of the poor, and caricatures as regards the uncaring mill-owners, brutal magistrates, and Blackadderish, pantomime figure of the effete, hopelessly out-of-touch Prince Regent.
When it eventually comes, the massacre is convincingly staged in its progression from a joyous break from the daily grind drifting into apprehensiveness, disappointment that Hunt is inaudible for the majority in a world without microphones, then disintegrating into the bloody confusion of fear, outrage, and grief. Journalists of the day hit on the name “Peterloo” to draw a bitter contrast with the recent victory of Waterloo, but the film fails to leave us with a footnote about the ensuing crackdown on reform – few of the surviving demonstrators would live to see anything approaching votes for all.
I admire Mile Leigh’s integrity and refusal to bow to commercial pressures, but this potentially excellent film suffers from an excess of speechifying, is probably at least thirty minutes too long, and, in the dramatic build- up as the crowd gathers, the switching between different groups and locations appeared quite disjointed and clunky. The director’s skill in marshalling details, examining ethical issues and exploring emotions seems shown to better effect in films with the focus on a small tightly knit group of people rather than a largescale thud and blunder epic.