With politicians and commentators recently raising the spectre of civil unrest in England over the thorny issue of Brexit and the potential damage of rolling out universal credit across the country, director Mike Leigh’s epic reconstruction of a dark chapter of English history has timely resonance. Not that the carnage at St Peter’s Field in Manchester on Monday 16th August, 1819, was caused by rioting radicals incited to violence by unpopular government policies and austerity.
On that hot summer’s day, thousands of men, women and children were there peacefully to hear rousing speeches about getting the right to vote, so their parliamentary representatives could tackle the twin burdens of high bread prices and a wage slump prevalent since Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo four years earlier. They weren’t expecting to be attacked, trampled and killed by their own troops, an atrocity that added a new word to the historical lexicon: “Peterloo”.
Salford-born Leigh has admitted when he was at school in the late 1950s, little was taught about this notorious local disaster. (I was lucky enough in my history lessons in the 70s to learn about Peterloo in the context of seismic social change in early 19th-century England that included electoral reform, the battle for trade union recognition, the abolition of slavery and an end to child labour.)
This sobering blast from the past, superbly shot by regular cameraman Dick Pope, begins with the last throes of the Battle of Waterloo where traumatised young bugler Joseph (David Moorst) survives, but in a shell-shocked daze then seemingly is left to walk all the way back to his family home in Manchester. Leigh then proceeds to knit multiple strands together, with an excellent ensemble cast playing a vast array of characters.
There’s Joseph’s salt-of-the-earth family of weavers headed by Maxine Peake’s doughty matriarch Nellie, who’s determined to keep her brood out of poverty. Meanwhile, in London, the government of Prime Minister Lord Liverpool is at the command of a mercurial Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny), reigning in lieu of sick George III but petrified by the spread of revolutionary ideas that could see him lose his head (an encounter with a potato illustrates his paranoia to a tee). And then there are the Manchester magistrates led by the Reverend Ethelston (played with fulminating fury by Bodyguard star Vincent Franklin), who pompously believe the people, especially those from Lancashire, are incapable of knowing their own minds.
Opposing that view are moderate reformists like John Knight (Leigh regular Philip Jackson) and supporters from the local press, who are instrumental in inviting tub-thumping speaker Henry “Orator” Hunt (a terrific Rory Kinnear) to address the masses. A group of female activists are also affiliated: they are as heated in their debates but are treated no less brutally when it comes that fateful August day.
At 155 minutes, the film does meander but Leigh’s ability to seamlessly move between the lives of disparate characters means it’s never plodding or one-note. Indeed, there’s humour here, whether it’s Franklin’s permanently apoplectic magistrate, Karl Johnson’s twitchy Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth or McInnerny’s indolent royal glutton. Yes, they border on caricature but let’s cut Leigh some satirical slack here. Even “Orator” Hunt’s self-importance and southern snobbishness is sent up when he’s unexpectedly forced to stay in a humble northern abode for a week.
The massacre, when it starts, is unheralded and low key, yet once the mayhem triggered by the marauding military unfolds, flashbacks to more recent examples of crowd crisis like the 1990 Poll Tax riots and especially Hillsborough come tragically to mind.
Atypically for a film about a shameful historical disaster, there’s no “what happened next” postscript, just a poignant fade-out and credits. Maybe the director is encouraging us to go and research those events for ourselves. Not a bad idea with the 200th anniversary of Peterloo next year.
If there is a lesson for the country in these volatile times, maybe it’s that disconnect between governed and governors, North and South, urban and rural, can have consequences that are best avoided by establishing lines of communication. No doubt, if Ken Loach, Leigh’s fellow chronicler of the lives of working folk, had been behind the camera, a different and more strident approach to events may have ensued. To his credit and despite being out of his directorial comfort zone, Leigh manages to take slice-of-life drama to impressively epic heights and expresses a quieter indignation. But it’s indignation, nonetheless.
Peterloo is released in cinemas on Friday 2 November after showing at the London Film Festival