‘Peterloo’ highlights a shamefully overlooked event in British history

Remember hearing much about the Peterloo massacre of 1819 in history class at school? Neither do we. Leigh's worthwhile historical drama will change that. Just be warned – it does go on a bit

Opening at the aftermath of British victory on the battlefields of Waterloo back in 1815, Mike Leigh’s fourth historical movie – following Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake and Mr Turner – immediately contrasts the end of war. On the one hand, we have David Moorst as Joseph, a lone soldier cloaked in red, stumbling back to his home in north England, profoundly impacted by the battle he’s just fought. He walks back into poverty, and a life of a family struggling to make ends meet, under a government that keeps shifting the goalposts. On the other, peers in the House of Lords immediately reward the Duke of Wellington with £750,000 for his heroic efforts.

Class division, and a very pronounced north-south divide, underpin much of what follows, as Peterloo sets about exploring the dissatisfaction with the legislature, the treatment of the poor and the suppression of democracy. Furthermore, what can be done about it.

The film is constantly building towards the subject of its title, too, the Peterloo massacre of 1819. An all-but-erased slice of history, it saw the killing of 15 peaceful pro-democracy protesters at the hands of the cavalry, who were ordered into the crowd at the behest of authorities. Hundreds more were injured, and the film gives voice to as many of the groups involved as he can fit in.

It’s a film, though, that requires a heavy investment from its audience. The extensive cast list – including welcome names such as Maxine Peake, Philip Jackson and Tim McInnerny – correctly hints at the number of characters you need to keep track of. Furthermore, the opening third of the film is dense. On the government side, there are many moments of well-dressed people in top hats spouting parables that could have been lifted from the Daily Mail. On the other, rooms of rightly angry people listening to lots of speeches. In giving so many people a voice, Leigh’s film does become hard to keep track of.

There are many moments of well-dressed people in top hats spouting parables that could have been lifted from the Daily Mail

But then it starts the build towards that infamous day with an underlying sense of foreboding. The ultimate catalyst for that is the organising of a speech being given by Henry Hunt (played superbly by Rory Kinnear, the standout of the excellent cast, and the most rounded character in the film by some distance), who’s made the long journey up to Manchester, and has to be squirrelled out of sight of the authorities when he’s there.

Shot with stark brilliance by Dick Pope, and played out without a backing score, the tension builds and it’s no spoiler to say events overspill with horrific consequences. Notably, Peterloo has a 12A certificate, which suggests that the film is partly targeting a younger audience to expose them to this slice of history. The offset of that is it restricts a little just how Leigh can depict the event itself, although it still hits home.

Arguably Leigh’s most ambitious film, I’d also suggest it’s the one that most needs its audience to work with it. I’m not sure everyone will. Difficult at times, sombre in tone and requiring full attention across its two-and-a-half-hour running time, Peterloo is relevant, worthwhile and almost guaranteed to make those who watch it rightly angry. But it’s not without struggles, as it tries to pack so much in. It’s a very honourable film, but not a great one.

Peterloo is in cinemas from November 2

Simon Brew is the editor of Film Storiesand can be found tweeting at @simonbrew

Image: Simon Mein