Mike Leigh’s Peterloo: Inequality and resistance in nineteenth-century British society

Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn) and Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland) review Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo which came out earlier this month.

Mike Leigh’s Peterloo recounts the weeks leading up to the infamous massacre of peaceful working-class protestors by the yeomanry at St Peter’s Field, Manchester on 16 August 1819. It is hard to identify a single protagonist, Leigh presents the viewer with a naturalistic bird’s-eye view, sweeping from mass meetings chaired by self-proclaimed ‘radicals’, young and old, male and female, to the intimacy of a husband and wife discussing the upcoming march in bed before going to sleep.

The film opens with a better-known historical event, the Battle of Waterloo, 1815. The ensuing juxtaposition between the huge pay-off granted to the Duke of Wellington from Parliament and a lone working-class soldier’s long march home to Lancashire, to be met by poverty and unemployment, encapsulates the film’s efficient use of contrast to highlight the social, regional, and economic inequality that characterised post-Napoleonic Britain. Leigh challenges the distinction between political and social history, forcefully depicting the interdependence between the two. He holds a microscope up to the minutiae of everyday life in Lancashire, and then sweeps down to London to reveal the excesses of the Prince Regent, signalling to the viewer the co-dependence between these narratives. The entire film is drenched in grim anticipation, for the viewer is aware of the violent denouement which will meet its extensive cast of characters.

Mike Leigh is renowned for his use of improvisation in film making. He never starts with a set script but builds up the storylines and dialogue with the cast during production. This gave Peterloo an organic realism that meant at times it felt as if one were watching a historical source rather than an artistic interpretation of the events leading up to the massacre.

The film’s refreshing level of historical accuracy is testament to the involvement of historical advisors from the outset. A series of public meetings unpacks the intellectual basis of radicalism, detailing demands for parliamentary reform and its historical precedent through constitutional landmarks like the 1689 Bill of Rights. The film captures the haughtiness of gentleman radical Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt and clashes with the more revolutionary ambitions of figures like Richard Carlile. It establishes the links between working-class politics and culture, with references to outdoor Methodist meetings, music and festive gatherings for the whole family. The scene in which Samuel Bamford prepares his followers for the walk to Manchester particularly brought out this cultural dynamic, drawing on his autobiography Passages in the Life of a Radical.[1]

Leigh plays with the chronology of certain events, shifting the suspension of habeas corpus and the role of the spy Oliver from the Pentrich Rising of 1817 to two years later. However, in doing so, the film builds a picture of the complex landscape of radicalism following the Napoleonic Wars. As with all historical films, there is a balance to be struck between accuracy and narrative, and Peterloo strikes this well.

What Peterloo does most effectively – and shockingly – is to juxtapose the suffering of the working people with the aloofness and extravagance of those in power, epitomised by the almost grotesque figure of the Prince Regent, played by Tim McInnerny. The contrast between government and governed – the haves and have nots – was stark. This was a regional divide too, between power concentrated in the hands of a Westminster elite ignorant to the concerns of those far from the capital. It is a message which continues to resonate powerfully today.

Image: The Massacre of Peterloo or Britons Strike Home, by George Cruikshank (public domain via Wikimedia Commons). The text reads: “Down with ‘em! Chop em down my brave boys: give them no quarter they want to take our Beef & Pudding from us! — & remember the more you kill the less poor rates you’ll have to pay so go at it Lads show your courage & your Loyalty”.

[1] Samuel Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical (1840-44)

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