London Film Festival: Peterloo

Writer/Director: Mike Leigh

Reviewer: Richard Hall

On Monday, August 16th 1819 it is estimated that between sixty to eighty thousand people crammed into St. Peter Field in Manchester to attend a public meeting calling for parliamentary reform and the repeal of the oppressive Corn Laws. What happened on that fateful day when fifteen people were killed and over six hundred injured has become part of Manchester folklore.

Having in his career received critical acclaim for writing and directing a series of stage plays and films including Abigail’s Party, Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake, the making of the film Peterloo is by far Leigh’s most ambitious project to date. At over two hours and thirty minutes and featuring a cast of hundreds, it is indeed an epic watch. Given the wealth of material that the film’s historian Jacqueline Riding must surely have given Leigh, the film at times is in danger of collapsing under the sheer weight of its heavy-handed exposition and historical and social detail.

The film begins promisingly with a lone British bugler walking dazed around the battlefields of Waterloo at the end of Napoleonic Wars. As the bugler, Joseph, (well played by David Moorst), returns back to his family in Manchester, Leigh switches attention to the affairs of the British Government who led by Lord Liverpool and the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, fear that the influence of the recent French Revolution might encourage revolt and unrest on home soil. In Manchester, the local magistrates set out to curb protest about famine and unemployment by arranging for spies and informers to report back to them on the actions of the growing Reform movement which vociferously begins to campaign for one man, one vote. The events leading up to the Peterloo massacre begin in earnest when the Government revokes Habeas Corpus and a leading reformer of the day Henry Hunt is invited to speak in Manchester by the fledgeling Manchester Observer newspaper and the Manchester Patriotic Union.

Leigh’s plotting of these events is slow, laborious and hard going. It is only when Rory Kinnear as Henry Hunt makes his appearance that the film’s pace speeds up and the drama begins to unfold. Hunt’s arrival In Manchester to speak at the public meeting at St. Peter Field begins a sequence of events that will ultimately result in carnage and the deaths of men, women and children at the hands of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry.

Kinnear and Maxine Peake as Joseph’s mother are amongst a number of well-known Film and TV actors who appear in the film. For the most part, they are good at what they are required to do but both suffer from limited screen time and characters that on the surface are tokenistic and lack any real depth. Pearce Quigley is effective as Joseph’s quietly spoken father and Manchester-based actor, Neil Bell is hugely impressive as the bombastic Samuel Bedford, a local radical with the roar and heart of a lion. His performance is one of the few highlights of the film. The real successes of Peterloo are Suzie Davies’ excellent production design and Dick Pope’s ravishing and sublime cinematography which are both pitch perfect for a film of this epic scale.

If to mark the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the Peterloo massacre, Leigh’s intention was to draw parallels between social and political injustices of the past and the present then as worthy as this film undoubtedly is, he has only partly succeeded. In the hands of Ken Loach one can only imagine that this would surely have been a very different and probably much better film.

Peterloo is on general release from November 2, 2018 | Image: Amazon Studios

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