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Film Review Urgent messages from Peterloo

Mike Leigh's stirring film on the 1819 massacre in Manchester has striking contemporary resonances, says PAUL FOLEY

Peterloo
Directed by Mike Leigh

IT'S fitting that the British premiere of Mike Leigh’s epic film Peterloo should be screened in Manchester.

It was in the heart of the city on St Peter’s Fields on August 16 1819 that the ruling class sent in sabre-wielding troops to disperse a massive yet peaceful demonstration calling for social and political reform. By the end of the evening, at least 18 people were dead and many hundreds more injured. Coming four years after Wellington’s victory over Napoleon, it was dubbed the Peterloo Massacre.

It's fitting too that the venue chosen for the premiere should be Manchester’s contemporary arts centre HOME — standing proudly outside the front door is the large granite statue of the great supporter of workers’ freedom, Friedrich Engels.

Mike Leigh’s film follows the events leading up to the carnage. It opens with a lone bugle boy (David Moorst) stranded on the battlefield at Waterloo. Though disorientated and distressed by the mayhem all around him he survives and, in contrast to the £750,000 awarded to Wellington by a sycophantic Parliament, the boy has to make his own way home.

There's a different sort of mayhem back in England, a country where repressive laws and an increasingly corrupt government are prompting calls for reform. The boy’s mother Nellie, played by the great Maxine Peake, is delighted to have her son home again. He may be broken but he is alive. Yet despite her hatred for the tyrants that control their lives, she is sceptical about the possibility of reform.

Leigh captures the paranoia at the heart of the British Establishment that followed the successful revolutions in France and the US, which sees sedition everywhere that must be ruthlessly squashed.

There's a nice moment when a potato is thrown at the Prince Regent’s carriage. Lord Sidmouth, the reptilian home secretary, rushes to the Lords to declare that His Highness was attacked by a mob throwing stones. By evening, the reports had changed stones to gunfire. Fake news generated by the elite is not such a new phenomenon.

But this is not the only reference to the modern world. Leigh draws out the parallels with today, where the ruling class use Parliament to pass regressive laws which protect the wealthy while heaping austerity on the working class.

Rory Kinnear’s Henry Hunt, while being a great orator, is condescending towards working people in general and the north of England in particular. It is a timely reminder that, as with Hunt, liberal social democrats will always sell working people short.

Leigh’s film is a rallying call against oppression and a homage to the brave reformers of the past. In the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s immortal words in honour to the fallen at Peterloo:
“Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number —
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many, they are few.”

On general release from November 2. The London Labour Film Festival is screening the film on October 31, followed by a Q&A with Mike Leigh, details: [email protected]

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