British director Mike Leigh has always been ready to take up the cudgels in support of the downtrodded masses, and the Peterloo massacre was a tragedy which cried out for his talents.
In August 1819 a peaceful crowd gathered on a sunny day at St Peter’s Field in Manchester to protest against high taxation and the lack of voting rights for ordinary people.
There was a picnic atmosphere as about 80,000 workers and their families waited to hear the radical orator Henry Hunt talk about the need for parliamentary reform.
Suddenly the peace was shattered as a body of government-ordered armed militia charged on horseback through the crowd, trampling the people and slashing indiscriminately with their cutlasses.
Eighteen people were killed and hundreds injured. The terrible event was dubbed Peterloo, a mix of St Peter’s Field and Waterloo, the epic British victory over the French just four years before.
Mike Leigh’s portrayal of the massacre is breath-taking, with its shock, terror and bewilderment as the people struggled to escape the violence.
He also creates a telling picture of the hardship facing the working class in the years following the long war with France, with high taxation, food shortages and many jobs lost through the industrial revolution.
But overall the film is disappointing.
There is scene after scene of fiery meetings where people make passionate speeches calling out for relief, for justice, for changes in the law.
The cast of characters is huge but there is not enough focus on individuals for the viewer to empathise with them.
The wealthy and powerful are portrayed without exception as cruel, grasping and heartless, determined to clamp down on any sign of an uprising which could lead to an English version of the French Revolution.
The poor, in contrast, are good-hearted, generous and deserving.
Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) was a real-life figure who was invited to St Peter’s Field to address the crowd. He was an exception among the class of wealthy land-owners – a radical thinker who was agitating for reform of the unfair electoral system.
He was arrested at the rally and spent the next two years in jail.
Peterloo, for all its faults, is a film worth seeing for the memorable picture it gives of the St Peter’s Field bloodbath and the events leading up to it.
Peterloo is now showing at Luna Leederville, Luna On SX, the Windsor Cinema, Luna Outdoor and Camelot Outdoor.
Watch the trailer…