Unlike Mike Leigh, I was taught about the Peterloo massacre in school. This doubtless shows how old I am or how young he is. Leigh is on record as saying that Peterloo is a story that needs to be told because it is no longer taught in schools. It is true that all dark episodes in British history – of which there are many – need to have lights shone on them, but this film feels more like the school lesson Mike Leigh feels he missed out on, rather than a serious piece of dramatic art.
Set in the year 1819 only twenty years (we hesitate to remind you, dear reader) after the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette across the channel. In France Robespierre rose and fell; there were executions, the terror. It was to be understood the ruling classes in Britain were much on edge. We constantly see them being very much on edge! No-one (depending where you were in the pecking order) wanted the same thing to happen in Britain.
Thus in the film we see that the words ‘parliamentary reform’ or ‘one person, one vote’ are enough to send the already apopleptic constables and magistrates into full hanging mode, liberally encouraged by an irate home secretary and the fat and indolent Prince Regent.
It is fertile ground for rebellion. But many and varied are the gatherings and lectures that the poor working folk have to attend in order to have these things explained to them in laborious detail; in order that the viewer may also have them explained in equally laborious detail. At one women’s meeting, one of the characters, a lady at the back of the room who can’t afford to feed her children and who has been forced to listen to what feels like twenty minutes of inflamed rhetoric, stands up to complain that she hasn’t understood a word. I sympathise.
To add to the difficulties, the corn laws prohibited the imports of cheap grain from Europe in order to protect prices for British land owners (who were also self-elected parliamentarians ) and these restrictions operated to push up the price of bread beyond affordability for the northern mill workers. Thus by the time orator Henry Hunt made his way from London to address a meeting on parliamentary reform – the meeting to be held on St. Peter’s fields just outside Manchester – there were a lot of angry people due to attend. Nevertheless this was to be a peaceful demonstration – a gathering merely, complete with women and children carrying branches of peace, ‘like a day out’ one of the characters says.
Rather as Tiananmen Square was a day out.
Mark Kermode liked this film a lot better than I did. Every scene I felt was weighed down with exposition. You may know nothing whatsoever of British history but still get to the mid point of Peterloo and wave a white flag, saying its ok, I get it. Bring on the cavalry, I understand. Honest.
There is simply too much ‘speechifying’ and shouting about appalling conditions and liberty for the people. Too many stereotypes. The worthy young rebel with the light of freedom in his eyes; the evil magistrate who sentences a man to hang for stealing a coat or a woman to be whipped and then imprisoned for drinking a bottle of her employer’s wine. Yes these things happened, but as a viewer I didn’t need to spend two and a half hours being beaten round the head with them in order to understand the final scene when the protesters are run down by militia.
No doubt the costumes were accurate down to the last ripped jerkin but instead of making the characters look authentic they looked like they had just stepped out of a museum. And the backdrops? Far too neat, too clean. This was rebellion theme park style. As for the northern accents – don’t even get me started.
If Peterloo was intended to be a history lesson in aspic, then so be it. If it was intended to have contemporary relevance it would have been better to do the thing in modern dress. It’s worked for Shakespeare. Why not set it on some deprived northern estate? In May’s Britain surely there are no lack of them too choose from.