Most of us learn of the Peterloo Massacre via a brief mention in a school history textbook, around the time we cover the Industrial Revolution and the Corn Laws. History lessons favour the stories of famous leaders and great battles – Henry VIII’s six wives, Roman gladiators, the tomb of Tutankhamun – as vehicles for teaching movements like the Reformation, the Roman conquests and Ancient Egyptian religion. Engaging students in the stories of the ordinary people impacted by these events, on the other hand, is harder. It is more difficult to create empathy with a mass of historic figures than it is to amaze people with, say, the story of Howard Carter’s death and the Curse of the Pharaohs.
Peterloo, directed by Mike Leigh, is about ordinary people. The film tells the story of 80,000 men, women and children who travelled on foot, from miles around, to peacefully assemble at St Peter’s Field, Manchester in 1819. The crowd gathered to protest against savagely-cut wages and demand tax reform and voting rights. Hundreds were injured and several killed by a small army of yeomen, cavalry and infantry sent by the town’s magistrates. Journalists at the Manchester Observer, the newspaper that evolved into today’s The Guardian, christened the massacre ‘Peterloo’ in reference to the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier.
We cannot help but empathise with Mike Leigh’s reformists, who are kind, courageous working families. Nineteenth-century Lancaster is brought to life in scenes of children peeling potatoes in cramped homes, balanced with open moors where people organise marching rehearsals. People have little food, but share it. There are moments when the film risks teetering into saccharinity, but these are redressed with humour (children are not very good at peeling potatoes) and through its characters’ toughness.
Films about historical events need be accurate enough to avoid misleading, while telling a compelling story about fictional characters. Leigh treads this line successfully by paring down the plot to two angles: showing working families as peaceful reformists, and those in authority as heavy-handed administrators of justice. But we also see that not everyone conforms to these groups. A few workers jeer at the protesters, a magistrate suggests that increasing wages might relieve the unrest and a cavalryman prevents a drunken yeoman from killing a woman at the protest. Brief, independent scenes also illustrate the reformers’ grievances: the Corn Laws forcing up the price of bread, brutal sentences being doled out for acts of petty theft and spies in the post office. When the few seditious rebels are jailed, they disappear from the narrative, and we are invited to imagine or look up what happens to them. These details illustrate the wider historical background that Leigh draws from.
This paring-down helps to keep up the film’s pace without it feeling hyperactive. The build-up to the massacre is almost uninterrupted; we do not get the sense that four years pass between the opening Battle of Waterloo scene and Peterloo. There are many speeches, which are afforded time, but broken up by shorter scenes. The speakers’ theatrical flourishes might seem improbable to a modern audience, though as Leigh commented at a Barbican Q&A, they were drawn from speeches of the time. People are convincingly portrayed as good orators who ‘knew the Classics’.
A brilliant performance is given by Tim McInnerny, who plays a heavily made-up Prince Regent. McInnerny manages to be both revolting and chilling as an overly-indulged monster; the Prince congratulates magistrates for acting in what he perceives as his best interests by ordering the Peterloo Massacre. Given the frequent reminders of the recency of the French Revolution – from the film’s opening scene of the Battle of Waterloo to the banners bearing slogans of ‘liberty, fraternity’ that are waved at St Peter’s Field – the film carries a real undertone of warning against the authoritarianism of the British ruling classes. Their wilful detachment and fearfulness are psychologically convincing and recognisable in today’s politics: the authorities hide self-interest beneath the claim that people ‘don’t know what’s best for them’, assuming moral superiority that permits them to let the armed forces loose against a peaceful crowd.
Mike Leigh asks his audience to pay attention to what ordinary people think and say. Peterloo gives us the perspective of the crowd of reformists, with their good will and good judgement.