In Cinemas 12/18
Written & Directed by Mike Leigh
Produced by Georgina Lowe
Cast: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Neil Bell
“Peterloo is a pertinent reminder of how most British subjects were enslaved without basic sustenance and freedom whilst the wealthy enjoyed their Empire and, in this, Leigh triumphs."
“As if to extenuate the wretchedness, Leigh indulges in large crowds of extras reminiscent of a Punch drawing of the grotesque, with close ups of bad teeth and greasy hair."
Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is an epic take on the well-documented massacre of the beleaguered Reformers at St Peter’s Field in 1819 by the King’s guards under the orders of General Byng and the local militia. The event was swiftly named Peterloo, as a play on the Battle of Waterloo, in recognition of the severity of the slaughter. The build up to the massacre and its realisation is well-paced and it is with dread that we watch events unfold for one of the impoverished families in Manchester who are drawn into the circle of Reformers and go to hear the great orator Henry Hard.
Peterloo is a salutary lesson for the uninitiated in historical facts and contextualisation under the guise of the working classes jogging each other’s memories about the Corn Laws, the repeal of Habeas Corpus and the early movement to reform suffrage giving every man a vote. It can feel like a helpful resource for those studying the period at GCSE, but in fairness, this is incorporated quite cleverly, and apart from a lengthy speech or two it doesn’t grate. The female contribution to Reform is also given a platform, not just the endurance of wives and mothers in the industrial North, but also their political role in “The Manchester Female Reform Society”. In these scenes, the educational speechifying is met with cat-calls from cross women shouting they don’t understand a word the leaders are saying.
Period dramas do require a suspension of disbelief. However, the manner of speech and the period dress can be too theatrical in the best of films. Peterloo is no exception. Peterloo draws on a roll call of fine British actors who are laudable in their roles, although occasionally there is an indulgence in hale and hearty Northern speak and the chewing of gums and tongues. As if to extenuate the wretchedness, Leigh indulges in large crowds of extras reminiscent of a Punch drawing of the grotesque, with close ups of bad teeth and greasy hair.
Of course, the masses are essential to the finale, which is a feat of orchestration in Peterloo. The film ends juxtaposing the desolate scene of St Peter’s Field whilst the corpulent Prince Regent and Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, roll their eyes in indignation at the insubordination of the British poor. Peterloo is a pertinent reminder of how most British subjects were enslaved without basic sustenance and freedom whilst the wealthy enjoyed their Empire and in this, Leigh triumphs.
(Reviewed (Special Presentation) London Film Festival October 2018)