There are various events (Hillsborough, Orgreave) which have been tragically immortalised in Northern England’s memory, where the state has ultimately taken heinous measures to preserve order. Shortly after the French Revolution, Peterloo is a single example on Manchester’s St Peter’s field where the state violently interrupted a peaceful protest. The event has since been tragically remembered due to the loss of 18 lives, and even inspired the foundation of The Guardian.

While the panning shots of fields and epic protests visually resemble twee heritage productions such as Michael Collins and Les Miserables, Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is a grand achievement that has more in common with Charles Dickens and George Eliot’s social commentary. As Dickens used the French Revolution to emphasise A Tale of Two Cities, Leigh similarly combines his former credentials in kitchen-sink realism with an epic production value to humanise the ordinary lives lost during Peterloo, and frame the tragedy within the context of this contemporary government’s ‘two cities.’                                 

The film begins with Nellie’s (Maxine Peake) son returning from Waterloo. Following his service abroad, Joseph (David Moorst) has PTSD but has also been inspired by Napoleon’s ideas and idealistically believes similar progress can be achieved at home. Manchester’s local newspaper and left-wing offices therefore invite middle-class socialist Henry Hunt to orate at the ill-fated event, which will become known as ‘Peterloo’.

The film is a panoramic canvas of Manchester as it focuses on various communities in anticipation of the event. Despite being produced a century after Peterloo, Lowry’s ‘Coming from the Mill’ painting visually resembles the promotional material and the final sequence’s backdrop. Considering Peterloo took place in the same area as Mike Leigh and Lowry’s birthplace of Salford, this reference may be intentional. Leigh’s canvas humanizes Peterloo’s victims and magnifies the tragedy by panoramically peeping behind the painting’s curtains on display. Some could argue that the Northern caricatures become repetitive or sentimental but Leigh is the ideal director for this production, as he returns to Life is Sweet’s comedic style to humanize the families sitting around the kitchen table.

Despite the modest kitchen-sink perspective, Peterloo’s style is also visually impressive. The film consists of dark, elongated still frames, which almost begin to resemble moving paintings from the period, emphasising Leigh’s intention to humanise the historical figures. The costume and set design meanwhile will surely be in line for Academy nominations later in the year.

When the Peterloo massacre finally does arrive, Leigh does not attempt to provide a sanitised view or protect the audience from the bloodshed. The spectator is positioned with Nellie’s family in the crowd as the director uses a handheld camera to glide above the protesters. The actual battle is brief but gruesome as the audience is candidly shown fatal stabbings and bayonets gouging eyes. Nellie’s offering of bread to a family from Wigan poignantly reminds us that most of the victims were ordinary, apolitical working-class people.

An epic Dickensian critique of the event on its bicentennial, in the context of our contemporary government, the promotional material suggests Peterloo will be a typical twee heritage feature. But Leigh uses his kitchen-sink credentials to personalise the subject and the ordinary Mancunian lives lost, which only makes the event itself feel more tragic when it arrives.

5 stars

Image credit: Movie DB

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