It has been called the greatest historical event never taught (in the UK at least). The Peterloo massacre, coming hard on the heels of the Battle of Waterloo to which the name ironically refers, was one of the most infamous events in British history, and yet it’s hardly taught at schools at all. I studied history to A-level and it wasn’t even mentioned. Mike Leigh’s film attempts to remedy this situation.
The film is a bit of a history lesson and at times feels like one, with references to the Corn Laws and Manchester’s lack of political representation thrown in. The Corn Laws kept the price of corn artificially high by forbidding foreign imports, thus protecting the farmers but causing great hardship to working people. This, coupled with the prevalence of so-called ‘rotten boroughs’, areas with no political representation, led to increasing discontent and eventually to a march and rally in St Peter’s Field in Manchester.
‘War and Peace’ never felt very far away: the film begins on a battlefield where a young bugler is staggering around, disorientated and confused among the smoke and dead bodies. Peterloo happened in 1819, just four years after the end of the Napoleonic wars, and many of the scenes were reminiscent of dramatisations of Tolstoy’s great work.
Like ‘War and Peace,’ the film is an utterly breathtaking panorama. The action does not centre on one character or group but moves like a diorama from scene to scene, group to group, character to character, in so doing building up a giddying picture of the Dickensian conditions (fifty years before Dickens) in Lancashire at that time.
It seems ungracious to criticise aspects of the film and in any case all doubts were entirely blown away by the final scenes; but I think it’s fair to say that dialogue has never been Mike Leigh’s strong point: much of it felt clunky and unnatural and some of the rich and powerful characters were totally overdone, again calling to mind the worst excesses of an outraged Dickens. But all this melted away as the scenes built to a crescendo. Henry Hunt, the main speaker and a supporter of worker’s representation and women’s suffrage, works his way towards the rally at the same time as families are marching from all corners of Lancashire; men, women and children in their Sunday best clothes in joyful mood and not so much a stick or stone among them that could serve as a weapon. Their demands are simple: repeal the Corn Laws and give them political representation. The response of the authorities is (inaudibly) to read the Riot Act and then to send soldiers in to disperse the crowd; to charge, injure and kill. Fifteen people died and hundreds were injured on that day.
Though far less deadly it reminded me of Amritsar as portrayed in ‘Gandhi’:
The Guardian gives it full marks:
although it doesn’t actually mention that Peterloo led indirectly to the establishment of the Manchester Guardian, the Grauniad’s forerunner;
And Mark Kermode seems to agree with me:
And here’s the trailer:
I urge you to go and see it. Don’t wait for the DVD – go see it at the cinema. You’ll thank me.