Mike Leigh, veteran left-wing filmmaker, director of Happy-Go-Lucky and Secrets & Lies, has made a film of a seminal event in British history: the Peterloo massacre. In 1819, the unprovoked massacre of ordinary people protesting injustice shocked the nation. Peterloo is the foundational event of British democracy and it paved the way for the process of reforms that (eventually) gave everyone the vote.
This was certainly a film that I was going to like, as it combines my interest in cinema, history and radical politics. It is probably no surprise to you, if you know me, that I did like this film. I can’t have unbiased opinions about something as important to me as this film.
So, my entirely subjective opinion is that this is a powerful film. I defy anyone to not be moved when they see unarmed men, women and children mowed down by cavalry in a confined square.
Mike Leigh and the army of actors, camera people, set designers, clothes makers and prop designers have created a very detailed portrait of a critical time in British history. There are lots of historic details that bring the film to life, from beautiful period costumes to the recreation of political rhetoric from the time.
The film’s sympathies are with the ordinary victims of the massacre, however, it does not paint the massacre as either a freak occurrence, an accident or being unavoidable. There were clear decisions that led up to it happening, made by a range of people with their own prejudices and assumptions. The film characterises the complex political situation and nodes of state power around Peterloo and the events that ultimately led to the deaths of 15 people and between 400 and 700 injuries.
As well as exploring the complexities of the state apparatus that carried out the massacre the film does not present the victims as one monolithic block. The film explores how they had a wide range of opinions. Some people were people were poor and simply wanted to improve their circumstances. Some people were protesting against the greed and callousness of landowners. Some had specific goals such as the repeal of the Corn Laws or reforms to how parliament was elected. Some had a radical vision of changing all of British society. Then, like today, a mass movement of people was made up of many different people with different visions, united in a common expression of discontent.
Peterloo is a strangely hopefully film, considering it is about a peaceful protest that was cut down. There are many characters in the film who are hopeful about the prospect of one form of change or another. Many of the characters in the film who are poor and have been ground down by early 19th century Manchester. There had been a lot of change, industrialisation and the rise of dark satanic mills, and many people’s lives has been made worse by the Corn Laws and a draconian establishment that uses everything from courts to the military to batter people down. Despite all this, many characters are hopeful, they believe their situation can improve and that their lives can get better and that they are the instrument of the change they need.
Our world is changing rapidly as well. Information technology could have as dramatic an effect on the world of the 21st century as industrialisation did on the 19th. A lot of this change seems to be for the worse. Social media has given a new platform to nationalists and hate mongers. In many ways it seems our world is spinning out of control. In this last week we have had bombs sent to liberal politicians, mass shootings in a Synagogue and the far-right candidate winning an election in Brazil. Just as it did for the Manchester poor of the early 19th century, the future looks bleak.
I think we can take some courage from the people who stood up for a better world in St Peter’s Field in Manchester. Their sacrifice brought us a fairer and more equal society. Peterloo shows that there is a cost to doing politics, especially when the state is heavily armed and its power is wielded by people who are the awful combination of stupid, prejudiced and frightened. Terrible things can happen when standing up to power and demanding that you be treated like a human being with rights. There is a cost to asking for a better world. Terrible things may happen in our future, but we still need to stand up for our rights against those who would oppress us and grind us down.
If ordinary people can come together and stand up for fairer, more equal and less oppressive society then a positive change can be made. The legacy of Peterloo is that ordinary people can make a positive difference, when united, even against an oppressive and powerful enemy. This is why a film that is very sad, ultimately left me feeling positive about our future.