As we think more carefully about the way we take our rights and freedoms for granted, political representation and the will of the people are topics that rear their head again and again. A hundred years since the campaign for women’s suffrage resulted in partial success, the quest for electoral rights for working men began more than a century before that as post-industrialisation Britain experienced a growth in manufacturing cities and, combined with increased literacy rates, meant the nineteenth-century was characterised by petitions and protests to extend the franchise.
One important step on the road to universal suffrage was arguably the Peterloo “massacre” of 1819 – a peaceful gathering in Manchester, the culmination of a campaign of oratory and political meetings held in the taverns and factories of the industrial north. By no means the first such assembly, and certainly not the last, Peterloo is pivotal because of the panic it created amongst the ruling elite, a panic which meant the local militia shed the blood of its own civilians, killing 15 and injuring over 600 men, women and children. Surprising then that it has taken so long for a single film to be dedicated to this important incident at St Peter’s Field, dubbed “Peterloo” by the media forevermore.
Mike Leigh’s 2.5 hour film which premiered in Manchester as part of the London Film Festival and opens in cinemas on Friday is a multi-stranded exploration of the various lives, professions and tensions that lead into the powder keg that was Peterloo. This should have been a definitive depiction, like Zulu or even Suffragette, the one film that would represent this event on celluloid and raise greater awareness of its importance, but Leigh’s film is too disparate, overlong and definitely overly-earnest, focusing more on generic depictions of working-class life with people peeling potatoes on their doorsteps. Beyond the outrage, rather crucially, it tells us remarkably little about the importance of Peterloo.
As the film opens, a couple of men, a canon and some smoke are an approximation of Waterloo in 1815, from which a single soldier is left standing. We imagine as this red-coated and clearly shell-shocked young man returns home to Lancashire that this will be his story, that we will follow him and his family through a series of events that will culminate at Peterloo four years later. This is only partially true and instead Leigh, who also wrote the screenplay, widens his lens to consider some of the factory workers who run political discussion groups, a local newspaper editor, the occasional female emancipation club, musicians, families, local magistrates, the King and orator Henry Hunt who becomes the star attraction.
The downside of this approach, though clearly well researched and scrupulously adhering to the primary sources, creates a laboured story, scenes of working-class life at an almost documentary level without ever drawing them together to make a consistent point about the causes and consequences of Peterloo. There is some wince-inducing dialogue to explain the Corn Laws and Habeas Corpus, and Leigh spends far too long in the build-up – more than two hours of the film – without really generating the kind of combustible tension that is needed to drive the drama. The crucial meeting itself is interesting and very well filmed but confined to about 20 minutes (the alleged time it took for the army to clear the field), much of which are shots of people waiting in anticipation for Hunt to arrive or the in-fighting between the magistrates which leaches tension from proceedings.
When the soldiers eventually arrive and the action sequences begin, they are poignant and brutal, dramatically if not politically satisfying, making-up for much of the film’s slow pace thereto. But in a way the brevity of this moment arguably doesn’t live up to the subsequent tales of slaughter and carnage that history has recorded. Partially this is because Leigh is so heavy-handed in his management of the story, so determined to make a political statement that the early sections are like being spoon-fed castor oil for two hours, you know it’s good for you but you don’t really enjoy it.
While Leigh focuses consistently on the various parties and lives to be affected by Peterloo, there is little overall sense of what it meant, both as a milepost on the way to wider enfranchisement and as a change in the relationships between government and the governed in Britain. Although we are given a clear sense of the politicisation of the working-class on a small scale through the meetings and pamphlets shown in the film, the wider context (other than its proximity to Waterloo in date only) is almost entirely missing, a choice that feels deliberate in order to retain maximum sympathy for the characters Leigh specifically wants us to admire for their self-sacrificing and entirely innocent role in the event.
To attempt to understand something is not at all the same things as excusing it, and we learn nothing about the motivations of the magistrates, army and local government officials who almost inexplicably attack their own people. In reality, the years leading up to the August meeting in St Peter’s Field were full of instability and fear. Napoleon may have been defeated but the long shadow of the French Revolution lingered as our nearest neighbours vacillated between monarchy and various-forms of army-led republicanism. It created a culture of fear within the English ruling-class that contributed to the great nervousness with which the planned arrival of 60,000 people in a confined space was received.
While Leigh’s film goes to great lengths to demonstrate that protesters were unarmed at nothing more than a summer fare – a scenario Hunt insisted on as key speaker – and reflected in the film by an arch rabble-rouser ordering the men to disarm themselves of cudgels and sticks before they march to the assembly, in context, several violent uprisings had occurred in recent times, as well as mill and factory equipment being smashed throughout the north by the Luddites in the years either side of Waterloo, so there was little reason for the authorities to think there wouldn’t be some who could used this meeting to forward a more aggressive agenda.
None of this justifies the events of Peterloo or the unwarranted brutality of the official response, but as vital context it is entirely missing from a film that somewhat extracts it characters from their period, an era in which a loathed Prince Regent was deputising for a mad King, soldiers returned from war expecting reward, and a history of political agitation and public protest was laid out in a relatively newly established newspaper media. Democratic demands began to filter down from the ruling elite, who had enjoyed the public tussles of Charles James Fox and Pitt the Younger, surrounded by their aristocratic celebrity friends just a couple of decades before, to the hard-working men of Manchester and its environs.
By turning away from all of this with cartoonish depictions of the local government and courtly worlds, it drains meaning from the film. Leigh faithfully recreates the events from the perspective of particular groups right down to the small gestures recorded in the primary sources, yet the overall effect is wanting, as though a key piece of the jigsaw is missing. We see plenty of what, but we never see why. This is compounded by the lack of consequences, the movie just ends with injuries and arrests, the carnage of a battlefield mirroring the Waterloo scene at the start, but no on-screen information cards to tell us what happened to the individuals or the cause of electoral reform in the nineteenth-century.
Leigh explained in the ensuing Q&A that this was a purposeful choice so the audience can take any number of meanings from the film, whereas in fact it undermines it at the final moment. As one of the most significant events in working-class history it is vital to know that these events led directly to the formation of the unified political groups of the future including the Chartists whose own six-point manifesto has been the basis of many of our modern electoral rights, but its genesis was among the groups that attended Peterloo. It is also important to recognise that while the franchise was widened for property owning men in 1867 and 1884, it wasn’t until a hundred years after Peterloo that all men and some women could vote. This film not only fails to show us why Peterloo happened, but also why it became such an important marker in government-citizen relations.
The performances are largely good within the fairly two-dimensional parameters of most of the characters, and there are particularly impressive turns from Pearce Quigley as Joseph, a decent working man who fights against his disapproving wife Nellie (Maxine Peake) to stand up for the rights of his family, Philip Jackson as local campaigner John Knight, the ever-entertaining Karl Johnson as the Home Secretary a conduit for news between the protesters and Tim McInnerny’s grotesque Prince Regent. The film really only gets going when Rory Kinnear turns-up as Henry Hunt, a much-needed shot in the arm to plot development and pace. His Macbeth may have lacked danger, but Kinnear has a fantastic time here as the arrogant and charmless orator more in love with his fame and himself than any of the causes he speaks so passionately about. Hunt is the only character permitted shades of grey and despite an ennobled background, he’s clearly on the side of the angles in this production which forgives his failings. Everyone else is basically wholly good or wholly bad or cowardly.
Peterloo has some good sequences and arrives at a well-presented if all too short representation of the event, one which will provoke feelings of outrage and horror at the sight of British soldiers behaving as though there were at war and slicing at their own countrymen as if they were the enemy. For a few minutes, the film’s purpose is crystal clear and there is a visceral sense of the panic, barbarity and shame that the event has caused, earning its place in history. It is such a shame that its preamble is so drawn out and its dramatic structure poorly considered. There was always a good Peterloo film waiting to be made, but this isn’t it.