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The day that changed British politics

Peterloo: the 1819 massacre of working-class Manchester rallyists

Trish Lee

Charlie Masters

trish.lee@newburynews.co.uk

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01635 886663

Peterloo

THE story of the 1819 Peterloo massacre, which saw the deaths of some 15 radical demonstrators at the hands of the Manchester Salford Yeomanry, would seem prime Ken Loach material. By some twist of fate, however, Mike Leigh gets directorial credit for this sublime, angry film.

The first feature-length dramatisation of these poorly-understood events, it’s a document that bristles with savage integrity – eschewing narrative conventions, Leigh’s is a Hugoesque panorama, never stopping to focus on any single figure or facet of that black day. This stroke of genius ensures that
the St Peter’s Field ‘mob’, a raw, amorphous symbol of aristocratic anxiety and plebeian indignation, takes centre stage as an entity unto itself. Whereas all too many costume dramas and TV re-enactments sap their subjects of political relevancein pursuit of modern resonance, Peterloo is period filmmaking as it should be, unabashedly partisan and bitingly authentic.

Leigh is, of course, the British king regnant of kitchen-sink realism, and this Midas touch is brought to the fore as he here marries scenes of epic carnage to greyer, more restrained backroom intrigues. Like Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday, the finale, as opposed to the lead-up, is the whole point – interestingly, the whole thing only gets brighter and more colourful as the climax approaches. That’s perhaps because we’re witnessing the birth of a new England, one steeped in the agrarianism of old (quite unlike the dark Satanic labyrinth of popular memory, early-19th century Manchester has an oddly rustic feel about it), but brimming with a new spirit of mass-participation and the (very real) prospect of revolutionary discord.

Rory Kinnear plays Henry Hunt, star speaker at the Peterloo demonstration, as a well-heeled idealist, a proto-Champagne socialist guided, nevertheless, by dissident fervour and moral conviction; it’s a portrait that giddily recalls a certain Labour Party leader of the 21st century. The film flirts with panto villainy in its depiction of the panicked ruling orders (namely Tim McInnerny’s repulsive Prince Regent, a man apparently swaddled in reaction); theirs is, however, an altogether more mundane evil than you might expect, one that lurks in the recesses of manorial corridors and beneath exquisite chandeliers. The cavalry regiment that initiates the massacre are bourgeois weekend soldiers; more a thuggish gang than cold, scheming class warriors, their recklessness contrasts starkly with the single-minded discipline of the protesters. This is a most unsubtle commentary, but an urgent and sobering one indeed.

Ultimately, one must come to Peterloo with a certain mindset. Those who treasure modern cinema’s ‘impartial’ eye, its kneejerk distaste for all things vaguely polemical, are bound to be disappointed – Peterloo’s cast are but bit parts, channels of a momentum that is to find its highest expression in the numerous, enthralling scenes of mass dissent and crowd politics. Quite unlike in the case of your run-of-the-mill blockbuster, where individual components contribute to a satisfying whole, Peterloo is a
spectacle that works backwards – every single mechanic is lent purpose by the sheer scope of Leigh’s vision. And it’s all the worthier for that feat of storytelling wizardry.

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