Mike Leigh’s PETERLOO (named after the Battle of Waterloo as this other massacre took place at Peter’s Field) is described in the press notes as a historical drama that portrays the epic events surrounding the infamous 1819 Peterloo Massacre, where a peaceful pro-democracy rally at St Peter’s Field in Manchester turned bloody. British government forces charged into a crowd of over 60,000 that had gathered to demand political reform and protest against rising poverty. Many protestors were killed and hundreds more injured, sparking a nationwide outcry.
The outcry was made known by the Guardian newspaper thus re-defining a moment in British democracy.
It is a 150 minute film which builds up to the last 30 minutes when the bloodshed begins. The audience is aware of what will happen, but it is a climax of the film the audience dreads. The build up is nothing short of brilliant, resulting in an expected brilliant from an equally brilliant writer/director who has delivered great films in the past – both of historical epics (MR. TURNER) and personal dramas (VERA DRAKE, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, SECRTS AND LIES).
The film is bookended with the presence of a young, handsome soldier dressed in red coat, who at the start of the film is seen surviving from the Battle of Waterloo. This is Joseph (David Moorst) who returns to his loving but poor family in Manchester. In contrast, the Duke of Wellington, the victor of Waterloo, is rewarded with a staggering £750,000 from Parliament. Joseph cannot find a job, his mother trades pies for eggs, and the rest of his family works in the cotton mill for pittance. With no voting privileges, bad harvests and a restriction on corn imports, the labouring classes of Northern England are in a bad way.
Finally the poor and oppressed decide to make their say and plot out a plan for change.
They enlist an initially reluctant but charismatic orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) from
London to speak at a big rally in St. Peter’s Field. Dressed in their Sunday best, thousands of men, women and children come to hear what Hunt has to say. Joseph and his family are among them.
There many reasons to see this historical epic. The most important one is to listen (and hence appreciate) the well written and spoken oratorical dialogue delivered by the actors in glorious English that is seldom heard in films. Hearing the speeches reminds one of the oratorical debates that used to take place in ones schools.
PETERLOO encompasses both the historical epic with the tragedies of personal drama. The film is full of scenes wth crowds of the poor, with dingy clothes and bad teeth, often dirty and unwashed but then putting other Sunday best for the St Peter’s gathering.
Cinematography is by Dick Pope (10 Leigh films), who creates a film resembling an Old Master painting. The film is written and directed by Mike Leigh, who grew up in Greater Manchester, just a short walk from St. Peter’s Field.