Virtually all British historical cinema and TV drama seems to be about World War Two or what kings, queens and aristocrats were doing. The working class characters that feature are either the comic relief or marginal to the story. Leigh flips that. His ruling class characters are comedic grotesques or one-dimensional ciphers. It’s the working class people who are fully delineated individuals working out where they fit into their society and the class struggle.
The Peterloo massacre is one of those events that is always left out of the officially approved version of history. This is a proudly regional film celebrating Manchester’s radical traditions, but even there the event lacks a proper public memorial and isn’t taught in schools. In the spirit of Mike Leigh’s storytelling, this review will oblige you to do your own research on all but the most essential facts. In interviews he’s said that he deliberately avoided the usual device at the end of such films of having captions naming the dead or the consequences of the slaughter.
What you do need to know is that in August 1819 a working class demonstration in support of universal male suffrage was attacked by the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry. They were an irregular armed force of the local bourgeoisie drunk on beer and class hatred. By holding the demonstration on a Monday, the demonstration’s organisers had effectively called a general strike to demand the right to vote. Estimates of the numbers of demonstrators range from 60-100 000 and the number murdered by the Yeomanry from ten to twenty. It’s thought that about five hundred people were wounded.
At two and a half hours, it’s dauntingly long but every second is gripping. Leigh and his cast use the time superbly to recreate working class life, and in particular the radical movement of the early nineteenth century. Many of the speeches of the period were written down and versions of them are delivered to us as part of the script. We follow the strategic and tactical debates of the radicals and we listen in on the planning meetings of the men who prepared and authorised the slaughter. Criticisms of the film’s pace and florid language are misplaced, these, along with the northern English cast, are the very things that make it so evocative.
An almost forgotten world of English working class organisation is reconstructed for us. This movement lacks the revolutionary fervour of the French san culottes of a generation earlier, replacing it with a mixture of religious ideas and democratic demands. It pre-figures the British labour movement’s fervent devotion to reform and obeying the law.
The penultimate chapter is the massacre itself. It’s presented as an intimate affair with many of the killers knowing their victims. This wasn’t rifles at a distance – it was sabres hacking into bodies – and the camera is always giving a demonstrator’s eye view.
Maxine Peake, who plays one of the central characters, is unambiguous about Peterloo’s contemporary relevance:
“It’s a vicious circle we go round and round in. If we’re looking at the effect of zero hours contracts, food banks, mass unemployment, the debacle that’s universal credit…..that’s what I find so distressing 200 years later we’re still in the same position today.”
Leigh himself has said that he wants people to draw their own conclusions after watching it. Here are mine.
The state and the ruling class are willing to use violence and murder to put down large radical movements. Peterloo stands in a line with Amritsar, Ballymurphy, Blood Sunday, the police attacks on the miners and the Wapping strikers.
Some debates always recur in radical movements. Should we be entirely peaceful? Should we have some sort of defence in place in case we are attacked? Should we go on the offensive and use violence ourselves?
Large movements always seem to attract a gifted orator and populariser who is simultaneously devoted to the ideas but has an ego which he (and it always is) feels removes him from democratic constraints.
This is a superb film which is successful in achieving the epic quality the subject deserved. Leigh and his cast have created a wonderful and enduring visual memorial to those early martyrs of the working class democratic movement.
Marx remarked that people don’t make history in circumstances of their own choosing. We can only guess at the process by which Leigh got his film funded by Amazon, the company whose warehouses are the modern equivalent of the 19th century cotton mills. There’s an aptness to it, and to the fact that it’s the only time I’ve heard a cinema audience boo a film’s distributor.