Peterloo by Mike Leigh, film review

This 1 November 2018 video from Britain says about itself:

Mike Leigh on Peterloo | BFI London Film Festival 2018

The director of Peterloo talks about the film at LFF2018. As shell-shocked soldiers return from the battle of Waterloo, they find their hometowns ravaged by a gentry upping food costs and ripping off the working classes. The French have already had their revolution and the disenfranchised men and women of Manchester are stirring with their own desire for reform. Nellie (Maxine Peake) is sceptical. Raising her family on a pittance, she is more concerned with food on the table than attending the increasingly volatile protest meetings. But many have been inspired.

A peaceful march and assembly is arranged, where the star speaker will be Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), a radical orator famous throughout the land for his stimulating rhetoric. As the day approaches the government grows nervous, while the people grow emboldened. In Peterloo, director Mike Leigh is working at the pinnacle of his powers, gloriously drawing together so many of his preoccupations: class consciousness, family dynamics, hypocrisy, humanism and the foibles of the male ego. Against the backdrop of cinematographer Dick Pope’s beautiful Manchester/Lancashire canvas, the film weaves multiple stories of everyday people into a socialist tapestry and depicts an act of police brutality with huge contemporary relevance. Warm, funny and incendiary, this is a major work of cinema.

On 1 March 2019, I went to see this impressive film.

It starts at the 1815 bloody Waterloo battlefield. Joseph, a child soldier, bugler, barely survives the cannon balls exploding and horses running all around him. He survives, but what with during World War I was called ‘shellshock‘ and is now called PTSD.

The film then switches to the London parliament, elected by rich men only. The government moves, successfully, to award the victorious general of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, 750,000 £ of taxpayers’ money (very many more £ today). Meanwhile, privates like Joseph have to walk home by themselves all the way.

Finally, he arrives at his working class family in Manchester. They are very poor. The government’s corn laws stop import of wheat from abroad, making bread expensive to benefit English landlords. In the Dutch subtitles of the film, corn is translated as ‘maize’; however, in 1815 English it was wheat. Joseph keeps his red military coat on in the whole film; as there is no money for other clothes. He is still very depressed. He can’t get a job. But gradually, he gets new hope because of the rise of the workers’ movement for universal suffrage.

As examples of injustice then, the film shows three court cases; not fictional, but exactly as they happened then. A female servant is convicted to being flogged for sipping her master’s wine. A poor man is deported to Australia for petty theft. And a poor servant gets the death penalty by hanging for stealing one of his master’s coats in a cold winter.

The infamous Prince Regent (later: King George IV) reigns, as his father, King George III, is mentally ill. As he leaves parliament, a disgruntled worker throws a potato, damaging the window of the prince’s coach. The newspapers and the conservative government exaggerate that as an attempt on the prince’s life. The 1679 Habeas Corpus Act against arbitrary imprisonment is suspended. In Manchester, supporters of universal suffrage are arrested and manhandled.

The government looks for a pretext for a bloodbath amongst universal suffrage supporters. They make General Byng, of the Waterloo battle, commander of the Manchester region. However, General Byng would not be present at the August 1819 pro-democracy rally. He thought a horse race was more important, leaving the Manchester bloodshed to a lieutenant colonel subordinate.

In 1819, workers of Lancashire decide to have a big meeting for universal suffrage in St Peter’s Field in Manchester.

The demonstration of many ten thousands of people is peaceful. With many women dressed in white for the occasion, bringing children along. Musicians playing.

Then, the film shows Manchester factory owners, demanding that authorities use violence to break up the rally. Their pretext: the demonstrators are not at their factory jobs, but on strike. So, supposedly, they break the law. The riot act is read. As there were no microphones in 1819, very few people heard it.

Then, a bloody attack started. First, by the amateur and drunk soldiers of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, ‘the armed wing of the local Conservative party’. Then, by professional hussar soldiers. One soldier indignantly calls on his colleagues to stop the killing and injuring, as the demonstrators, surrounded by the military, are unable to go away. At least fifteen people killed; maybe 700 injured.

Even the correspondent of the London Times is arrested by the soldiers. Then, it was already a Conservative daily; but not yet owned by Rupert Murdoch.

The final scene of the film is the burial of Joseph. He survived Napoleon’s army at Waterloo. But he did not survive the British army at St Peter’s Field, ‘Peterloo’.

This 11 September 2018 video from Britain says about itself:

PETERLOO Director Q&A | TIFF 2018

Veteran British filmmaker Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy, Mr. Turner) returns to the Festival with a sobering look at the context and consequences of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, when British government militias responded with violence to a crowd calling for political reform.

In an interview with Dutch weekly VPRO Gids, 2-8 March 2019, p. 29, Leigh says that the film is not just about 1819, but also about now. When democracy is not working really democratically. ‘In Western countries, people are in power who do not do their democratic duty‘.

In another interview, Leigh discussed the financing of the film by Amazon (owned by the richest man in the world, treating its workers horribly):

“Either you get interfered with or you don’t”, he says. “Either you get backing or you don’t. Those are the bottom lines. Now, I’ve been very fortunate that in all of the 21 films I’ve made, nobody has interfered with any of them at any stage. Amazon is no exception. It is the biggest budget we’ve had but it’s not huge.” …

Ask Leigh whether he would like to be a young independent UK filmmaker starting out today, and he gives a wary response. He realises he is speaking “from the privileged, lucky experience of someone who has umpteen films and never been interfered with”.

This 23 October 2018 video from the Netherlands says about itself:

Mike Leigh and Maxine Peake on Peterloo

Director Mike Leigh talks about Peterloo, his film about the dark pages in the history of Great Britain, the Peterloo Massacre, that occurred at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester on 16 August 1819.

Maxine Peake joins trade unionists’ calls to free Abdullah Ocalan. The actor, who recently went on a delegation to Turkey, said meeting hunger-striking Kurdish MP Leyla Guven was ‘inspiring but harrowing’: here.

13 thoughts on “Peterloo by Mike Leigh, film review

  1. Thank you – I’m from Manchester, just down the road from where Mike Leigh grew up, and saw this on the premiere night. The bicentennial of Peterloo is very important to us, and it’s good to know that people are watching the film outside the UK as well as here.


    • Thank you for your comment!

      Mike Leigh grew up in Manchester, not far from St, Peter’s Field, but never learned about the massacre at school.

      One of the aims of the film is to change that.


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