The Peterloo Massacre is one of the most important events in British history over the last few hundred years that is not as widely known as it should be. Even in Manchester, a true memorial to the Massacre was only unveiled in 2007. So when it was announced that Mike Leigh was going to be making a film about the massacre, I was excited for it, it being especially important now to highlight an event focusing on obtaining democratic representation and it will serve to introduce a new generation to the Peterloo Massacre and the resulting film is a powerful look at class at the time and how little has actually changed since Peterloo.
It’s hard to really describe the plot of Peterloo since most of the film is more focused to showing the lives of those living in Manchester in the early 1800s, along with showing the contrast between the working class mill workers and the luxury conditions of the upper class and the contempt shown to the working class by the magistrates. A large portion of the film is dedicated to showing the workings of the pro-democracy organisations and the build up to the hustings at St Peter’s Field that was the site of the Massacre. By showing the workings of the pro-democracy organisations and the magistrates, along with the living conditions of the working class, we get a full understanding of what life was like at the time and how the pro-democracy camp came together. There is also an interesting idea brought up about the nature of violence at political rallies as one of the reformers, Henry Hunt, makes it clear that he will not attend any event with weapons as even so much as a stone being thrown is enough of a justification for the Yeomanry to attack the protesters. We also see the efforts made by the government to suppress the pro-democracy leanings, with the suspension of Habeas Corpus following a potato being thrown at the Prince Regent and the magistrates waiting for any excuse to have Hunt and other pro-democracy activists arrested on trumped up charges, and the film doesn’t shy away from the brutality of what was done to these activists.
Everything in the film is building up to the Peterloo Massacre and the film makes the right call in making the massacre the climax of the film. By spending so much time just showing what life was like for the working class and the pro-democracy activists, along with showing the meetings held by the activists in full (and not dumbing down any of the language they used), we understand why so many people were at St Peter’s Field on that day and why the government was so afraid of them. The actual staging of the Massacre is fantastic, being an incredibly tense piece of film-making, making effective use of cinematography to make the staging feel bigger than the budget allowed. Whilst there were over 60,000 people at St Peter’s Field, the film probably only has around 1000 extras at most, but the way the scene is staged makes it feel like there are 60,000 and by keeping the focus on the characters we’ve been following throughout the film, we get a more personal understanding of how devastating and terrifying the massacre must have been.
The performances meanwhile are excellent. I don’t think it’s right to single out specific members of the cast for praise since this is one of the best ensemble films I’ve seen in recent years, even giving minor roles to great talents like Julie Hesmondhalgh, Dorothy Atkinson, Leo Bill, Christine Bottomley, Karl Johnson, Sam Troughton, Phillip Jackson, Tom Gill, Vincent Franklin, Jeff Rawle and David Bamber. Leigh’s go to tactic of retroscripting and improvisation works wonders here, helping to build the world of the film and make it feel lived in. If there are two cast members who can be considered the leads, they are Maxine Peake as Nellie, a working class woman from the area just outside Manchester who effectively shows the hardships facing women of the working class at the time along with the desire not to lose hope, and Rory Kinnear as Henry Hunt, who shows the effective oratory skills needed along with a bit of an egotistical streak showing how not even those who advocate for reform are perfect, but can be the best allies. I do also have to mention having a bit of fun with Tim McInnerny as the Prince Regent, partly because of a good over the top performance from McInnerny, but also because it reminded me a bit of his work in Blackadder the Third.
Overall, Peterloo is a powerful, timely film that shows the talents of Mike Leigh in full force. The ensemble nature of the film allows a full insight into the lives of those living in Manchester at the time to be seen and when it comes to the way the Massacre is filmed, Leigh puts you in St Peter’s Field, making the fear over the Massacre to be felt clearly. This is definitely worth seeing.
My Rating: 4.5/5