In 1819, at a protest at which tens of thousands people gathered to listen to the radical political agitator Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, the Manchester yeomanry were ordered to disperse the crowd on horseback. Taking this as carte blanche to charge the unarmed crowd and cut them down with impunity, the ensuing carnage became known as the Peterloo Massacre.
With the spectre of the 1789 French Revolution still ruffling the feathered nests of the British aristocracy, the authorities were unsurprisingly quick to blame the protesters for inciting the violence, creating an appalling but lasting misrepresentation of the worst massacre on British soil in history. Indeed, as recently as 2007 a blue plaque exists at St. Peter’s Field that passes of the despicable actions of the yeomanry as merely “dispersal by the military”.
Mike Leigh’s latest film Peterloo for the first time gives an account of the events and contexts leading up to the massacre. Leigh’s tendencies to depict the rich as uniform moustache twirlers, and the working classes as honest and uncomplicated are as present here as ever. But as a historical account it is unvarnished without feeling dry or academic, and as a coded satire of the contemporary British political climate it is urgent and deeply impassioned.
Performances all round are good, even if some of the cast of British heavyweights’ delivery of their 18th century rhetoric occasionally slip into stagey line readings. As usual, Maxine Peake is outstanding here playing Lancashire mother Nellie, more concerned with the daily struggles of putting food on the table and caring for her son, traumatised by the Battle of Waterloo, than leading a revolt against the political classes. Elsewhere Tim McInnes relishes his role as the corpulent Prince Regent – a grotesque caricature made flesh – while Ian Mercer in a small but hearty role as Dr. Joseph Healey gives a delightfully swell-tongued performance.
While the frequency of the functionally shot discourses between the film’s orators and activists undoubtedly slow the film’s pace, Leigh shoots his interiors with care, evoking the era with deep blacks, murky browns and handsome compositions. A terse exchange between the self-regarding Hunt (Rory Kinnear) and a journalist about the plight of the labouring classes, is particularly effective in its awkward positioning of some of those workers within the frame.
The centrepiece of Peterloo, is of course, the atrocity itself. Leigh takes his time here, juxtaposing the disillusionment of the beleaguered Lancastrians with Hunt’s self-serving arrogance, and the cowardly, venomous behaviour of the establishment bickering over when to release the overfed yeoman hounds on the crowd. The chaos that follows is not only the most accurate depiction of the massacre onscreen to date – in itself an injustice of misrepresentation that is felt throughout the sequence. Unarmed men and women are murdered indiscriminately and senselessly by state-sanctioned maniacs emboldened and enabled by their privilege.
In the aftermath, there is talk of the need to properly report the event, and with it an implied cry for the need of bold, truth-telling journalism today. There’s plenty to criticise about Peterloo, not least of which is the declarative dialogue that requires veteran actors to chew through lines like “hope is all we have”. Yet where it matters, Peterloo hits the mark with the inveterate anger it must surely inspire in its audience. And that line about hope? The final, despairing image tells a different story.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 10-21 October. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell