A review of the new political film “Peterloo”

On 16 August 1819 in St Peter’s Field in central Manchester, around 60,000 pro-democracy reformers gathered in a peaceful protest that turned savage when it was attacked by armed cavalry, resulting in 18 deaths and over 600 injured. Until recently, the only public commemoration of this historic event was a plaque on the wall of what used to be the Free Trade Hall and is now the city’s Radisson Hotel. Most people have never heard of this event which was quickly called Peterloo.

However, I have always been aware of it because I grew up in Manchester until I was 23; I spoke as School Captain at my school’s Speech Day in the Free Trade Hall; and I studied in the Central Library in what is now St Peter’s Square.

Now a new film, called simply “Peterloo”, both written and directed by Mike Leigh – together with bicentenary events next summer – will highlight this neglected piece of working class history. Leigh has crafted his work with great attention to historical accuracy and period detail and he brings home very powerfully the grinding poverty and perpetual hunger of the working class folk of Manchester and the surrounding Lancashire mill towns.

The story is filled with a large group of well-cast personages, most notably Maxine Peake as Nellie, mother of a young, traumatised soldier back from Waterloo, and Rory Kinnear as Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, the eloquent speaker at the rally calling for parliamentary representation more than a decade before the Great Reform Act of 1832.

This is an immensely worthy work that reflects my own politics, but my experience of viewing it at the cinema – even on the opening weekend, it was screened in a small theatre in front of a small audience – suggests that it is not going to pull in the punters.

The reasons are clear. There are too many characters giving too many polemical speeches; too many of the characters – especially the politicians and the justices – are in fact caricatures; and, at two and a half hours, the whole thing is just too long and too pedestrian. This is such a pity because the history lesson is a vital one and the final massacre scene is stunning.

If you’re interested in films with a political message, you’ll find some suggestions here.



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