In Reviews

By Simon Donohue

Image credit: Simon Mein

A battle weary and bewildered British soldier makes his way home from the fields of Belgium, where Napoleon’s forces have finally been defeated by Wellington’s men at Waterloo.

Drunk through sheer exhaustion and all he has seen, Joseph collapses into his home in 18th century Manchester, where his family of mill labourers struggle to comprehend the price that has been paid for victory by the working classes.

Without giving too much away, it’s already clear where young Joseph’s fate will lie in the closing moments of Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, when the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, supported by local constabulary and the 15th Hussars, slash their way a crowd of more than 60,000 peaceful protestors, killing 18 people and injuring hundreds more.

Peterloo is Salford-born director Leigh’s painstakingly authentic film about the tragic and violent events which created the conditions for the Manchester we know today.

Produced in time for the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre – August 16, 2019 – it provides a gritty education of the forces that were at play.

The end of the Napoleonic wars brought extreme hardship and chronic unemployment, exacerbated by the introduction of the Corn Laws.

The response of the radical reformers was that Manchester should have a representative in parliament, with a vote for every free man. The powers that be were ignorant, greedy and frightened.

Peterloo was filmed largely on location in Lincoln, where it was much easier for Leigh to construct an authentic backdrop for a film based in the Manchester of the early 1800s.

But it’s clear that his intention was to commemorate an event which was in some ways the making of modern Manchester and there are references aplenty to locations that will provide important points of navigation for visitors today.

The crowds who assembled in St Peter’s Field - roughly on the modern site of the Midland Hotel and Manchester Central – had come from as far as Kersal Moor, Wigan and Middleton.

There are references to a tavern in Harpurhey, as well as namechecks for Deansgate and Portland Street.

This is largely a one-sided retelling of history and rightly so. The fears of the ruling classes – mill owners, magistrates, soldiers, royalty and self-serving politicians – are given little justification.

The labourers of the thundering Manchester mills are hungry, exploited and without a voice in parliament.

The fact that the gathering to hear orator Henry Hunt speak about parliamentary reform was peaceful is laboured, justifiably, emphasising the impact on the lives of the innocent.

The people of these rival factions are caricatures, with gargoyle faces, and “t’Northern” enunciation, but that adds to the authenticity.

Leigh has succeeded in capturing the bloody significance of the Peterloo Massacre, both in terms of the evil injustice meted out on the day, and the radical movement it fathered.

Where Peterloo ends, Manchester’s modern story begins, heralding the era of Emmeline Pankhurst’s suffragettes, votes for women, equality for all, and a beating heart of tolerance that continues to this day.

Peterloo is a must-see for anyone who cares about the pioneering spirit of progress in Manchester and a terrible event which led to the creation of a modern city which refused to accept injustice and suffering.

At one point, the character played by Bolton actor Maxine Peake looks across to her infant granddaughter, and tells her husband: “In 1900, she will be 85… I hope life's better for her then.”

We know now that things had begun to improve, but that there’s still work to do. If Manchester had forgotten, or more recently failed to fully appreciate the impact of Peterloo, then Mike Leigh’s film will leave people with little doubt about what happened in St Peter’s Field.

*Simon Donohue saw a preview of Peterloo at Home in Manchester, which hosted the world premiere of the film – the first time a premiere forming part of the London Film Festival has been hosted outside London.

Peterloo is on general release in UK cinemas from November 2.

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