Mike Leigh’s latest big canvas production, PETERLOO, is a magnificent class struggle epic of prodigious weight that plucks a pivotal event in English history from the dustbin of obscurity.
Pic begins on the last day of the Battle of Waterloo, with a young soldier, Joseph, shell shocked, dazed, bewildered, overwhelmed on the field of cannon fodder, a haze of gunpowder shrouding the carnage and confusion.
Brain battered and spiritually subdued, Joseph returns to his loving but poor mill working family in Manchester. No state restitution, no monetary repatriation, no trauma counselling.
The victor of Waterloo, however, the high born Wellington, is handsomely rewarded in Parliament, a staggering seventy five thousand pounds, while soldiers the likes of Joseph struggle to survive.
Parliament also pays the King £2 million per annum and the Prince Regent £1.5 million per annum.
Wellington, too busy counting his war booty, abrogates his responsibility and sends his subordinate, General Byng, to deal with unrest in the North of England as, post war, working people suffer unemployment, bad harvests, and restrictions on corn imports.
They have no vote, and popular pro-franchise meetings are held by moderate radicals and more extreme firebrands. Joseph, his father and his brother attend these, but his mother is sceptical.
The oppressive brutality of the Manchester magistrates impose severe punishments that include transportation to Australia. Local and government spies abound within a corrupt constabulary, and in London the Home Office intercepts mail. The Prince Regent is attacked in public, so Parliament suspends citizen’s rights.
Lancashire radicals Bamford and Healey return home from the capital,
enthusing about the famous orator Henry Hunt, whom they suggest be invited to address a proposed mass demonstration at St Peter’s Field.
This plan takes hold, Female Reformers join and momentum builds. Whilst the brutal anti-radical local yeomanry prepare their weapons, leading
young radicals are imprisoned.
Arriving in Manchester, Hunt, furious to discover that the meeting has been postponed, reluctantly stays with the owner of the radical local newspaper. Committed to peaceful means, he overrides Bamford, who wants some marchers armed, and gets the hostile magistrates to promise he won’t be arrested. They in turn discover that General Byng plans to be absent from the meeting, attending a day at the races, sending a deputy instead.
Thousands of peaceable, law abiding citizens walk miles on the day, August 16, 1819, Joseph and his family among them. The magistrates dither and bicker before ultimately sending in the yeomanry and the military.
A massacre ensues.
Surveying the carnage, journalists, recalling Waterloo, dub the event The Peterloo Massacre.
Mike Leigh’s brilliantly rendered and beautifully realised film highlights the significant contribution that the so called ordinary folk have on the development, security and expansion of democracy. Terrible things will happen in any great revolutionary enterprise, the powerful must be held to account, the people must prevail.
To its honour, PETERLOO is no romanticised vision to working class life nor does it make Henry Hunt a hero.
Rory Kinnear’s performance as Henry Hunt is superb as the charismatic orator and pragmatic peacock strutting peacenik, grandiloquent and elegantly attired.
In stark contrast, Maxine Peake is terrific as Joseph’s mother, perennially pragmatic, sceptical, cynical, knowing full well that merely existing is exhausting, without expending time and energy on external forces but is willing to support the community in its challenge for change.
Two hundred years on from the event, PETERLOO is as pertinent today as it was then, and shall be ever so.