Crowd trouble

Patrick Mulcahy on Mike Leigh’s homage to Peterloo 200 years on

Peterloo is writer-director Mike Leigh’s most ambitious film to date – and one of his least financially successful. With an advertising campaign that did not foreground any of the leading actors (Maxine Peake, Rory Kinnear) and a release strategy that pitted it against more commercial fare – ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, its main competitor, continued to wow audiences in its second week of release – it was quickly removed from mainstream cinemas and replaced in art-houses by the movie version of Widows. It remains though a brave and bold work, the product of a filmmaker with a distinctive way of working that informs what we see on the screen. It should enjoy a healthy afterlife on the streaming service Amazon Prime and, later, Film Four.

Its subject is the Peterloo Massacre of 16 August 1819, when an address by Parliamentary reformer Henry Hunt at Manchester’s St Peter’s Fields, attended by 60,000 people, was deemed illegal whilst it was taking place and local yeomen and subsequently 600 Hussars (the light cavalry) moved in. In the ensuing chaos, between 10 and 20 people were killed – historians don’t agree on an exact figure – and many hundreds were injured. The Massacre remains a national outrage, an example of government failing to listen to the demands of the people and acting with incompetent cruelty – one of the film’s most forceful moments is a cut from crowds being trampled underfoot to the thundering hooves of horses crossing the finishing line as the military man that should have been in charge of his forces at St Peter’s Fields attends a horse meeting with landed gentry.

The massacre led to the rise of the Chartist movement, formally founded two decades later with its six demands – votes for all men, equal electoral districts, abolition of the requirement of MPs to be landowners, payments for MPs, annual general elections and the secret ballot. At the time, only 2% of the country had the vote and poverty was rife. Men returning from the Napoleonic wars found it difficult to find work; food prices were increased owing to restrictions on imports and families struggled to make ends meet. Leigh restages the ‘attack’ on the Prince Regent’s carriage after the state opening of Parliament in January 1817 that resulted (not explicitly set out in the film) in the suspension of habeas corpus – men could be arrested without proof of wrongdoing – as well as the prohibition of seditious meetings and suppression of the press.

The bulk of the film is told from the point of view of ordinary Lancastrians. Our initial viewpoint is a lone bugler whom we see on the battlefield of Waterloo ensuring that troops could act appropriately – some bugle calls signalled attack, others retreat. He returns after a long and lonely walk to Manchester and the family home (his mother is played by Peake). His difficulty in finding employment is summarised in a short but telling scene in which he approaches three craftsmen at work in the high street, his military uniform – the only clothes he possesses – seeming an anachronism. He attends a meeting of reformers, who then take centre stage travelling to London to hear and then talk to Henry Hunt (Kinnear) – they are successful in the former, but not the latter.

There is plenty of light humour as the reformers agree their strategy. Leigh shows us a printing press at work – one copy at a time – and how one newspaper curses a regional rival (‘bloomin’ rag’). Meanwhile, a spy is at work, sniffing out potential rebels and getting them arrested. There is a brutal scene of a so-called agitator being dragged to a cell and then beaten.

Leigh also shows us government at work, principally small meetings rather than the Cabinet that we know today. Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson in the role of his life) is hopeful that the North can be policed appropriately.

The film gets into its stride when Hunt is smuggled into the locality and hides in lodgings. There he contends with having his portrait painted. Hunt is determined to be the only speaker and no platforms a local reformer, who is in effect embarrassed in front of his family.

In telling the story, Leigh doesn’t invite contemporary parallels. Nevertheless, some exist. The poor aren’t being listened to and Brexit, the so-called exercise of the popular will, has become the national distraction. Leigh’s passion project could have been kept under wraps until 16 August 2019, the 200th anniversary of the massacre, but film financing, demanding a return in a particular fiscal year, appears to have prevented this. Chartist arguments are rehearsed in the film (notably annual elections) but not framed in a way to remind us of aspirations not yet met. Though an accomplished work, Peterloo is no rallying cry for the socially disenfranchised of today. This may be its biggest aesthetic failure.

Patrick Mulcahy