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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton




Directed by Mike Leigh (2018)

The first duty of a film-maker is to create an imaginary world which we can happily inhabit for a couple of hours before we emerge from the cinema, blinking at the shock of the real one.

Mike Leigh achieves this marvellously well in Peterloo, a detailed document of the eponymous massacre of peaceful demonstrators who, in 1819, had gathered in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, to further the struggle for the vote.

From the ranks of weaving machines bristling into the distance, the beginnings of mass production, to the cramped homes of the working people, and all populated by an array of sharply-drawn characters, we are immersed in a convincing portrayal of life 200 years ago. Leigh gives us everything but the smell. For which omission we probably should be grateful.

Any attempt at a realist representation of class struggle must, however, fall short. There is always an excess that can’t be encompassed by the camera.

Percy Shelley’s poem The Masque of Anarchy, written in the wake of Peterloo, carries the potent line “Ye are many - they are few” and it’s the ‘many’, as a force of history, that’s hard to capture.

Inevitably, the burden of representing the masses falls on a few shoulders, and much talking. There are several long scenes of meetings that repeat the arguments for democracy, and at the time repetition was necessary to build the movement - but not in a film that could have done with a vigorous edit.

A few characters remark on it - “less talk, more action,” says Nellie (Maxine Peake) – as though Leigh himself worries that he might be overdoing the rhetoric.

Nellie’s family of workers does a better job of getting the politics across. Joseph (David Moorst), her shell-shocked son,is key. Never out of the jacket we see him wearing in the opening scene on the battlefield at Waterloo, he runs like a red thread through the picture, stitching together the bloody victory over Napoleon and, a few years later, the bloody crushing of a tentative revolt on the home front.

The powerful connection was made almost immediately, we learn, as journalists caught up in the carnage come up with the headlineportmanteau word ‘Peterloo’ to convey the bitter irony of an army turning on its ‘own’ people.

Joseph is the archetypal victim, risking his life for the same generalwho was later to take his life – by proxy, of course, as Sir John Byng (Alastair Mackenzie) had an urgent appointment at the races that day.

Shelley’s ‘few’, represented in Peterloo by Byng, government ministers, the ghastly Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny) and a jostling of vindictive cartoonish magistrates, are a gift for Leigh, a cast of comic and frighteningly dangerous grotesques parading dodgy hairdos much as their class (and very likely actual) descendants do today (think Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg).

Henry ‘Orator’ Huntmight be on the right side of history, but the white-hatted gentleman campaigner for reform also comes off badly in the hands of Rory Kinnear who plays him as so far up himself he almost turns inside out.

If there is hope, it lies with the working people who gathered that day, defeated in a battle they could never win, but strengthened for the war ahead. By the end of Peterloo the dusty field is deserted by all but the corpses, but it stands as a symbol not just of the brutality of the few, but of the potential of the many that they fear.

November 7, 2018

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