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Reviewed by:
  • Peterloo dir. by Mike Leigh
  • Steve Poole
Peterloo. Written and directed by MIKE LEIGH. BFI Film Fund, Film4, Isobel Griffiths Limited, Thin Man Films, 2018.

Let's be clear. The very existence of an expensively staged, beautifully designed, and passionately performed movie about the Peterloo Massacre, on general release a year in advance of the bicentenary, would not have been a safe prediction a few years ago. Past calls for memorialization have produced all kinds of contention. But after years of local government heel-dragging and unseemly rows over the wording of small commemorative plaques in Manchester (should we call it a massacre, an incident, or a tragedy?), Mike Leigh's epic two-and-a-halfhour costume drama has no such qualms; a massacre it was, says Leigh, and one of quite exceptional brutality. It is, of course, a movie, not a meticulously researched monograph. But the fact that it takes the director the best part of two hours to lead his audience to the horrors of the final act speaks volumes for the care with which he has picked his way through the complexities of post-war radical argument. We watch, for example, as the voices of old guard moderates like John Knight (Philip Jackson) and John Saxton (John-Paul Hurley) are slowly superseded at tavern meetings by younger and more militant talents, represented by John Bagguley, Samuel Drummond, and John Johnston (Nico Mirallegro, Danny Kirrane, and Johnny Byrom, respectively). As the new reform movement builds, we witness Knight's discomfort at the younger men's millenarian language and their radical constitutionalism. The king, declares a confident Bagguley, must answer a petition within forty days and forty nights or face imprisonment and deposition. These are words Bagguley was indeed reported to have used, but the only source, as far as I'm aware, is an informer's report in the Home Office files in the National Archive. Leigh has certainly done his homework. Soon afterwards, the trio are seen on the moors urging a motley band of textile workers to arm themselves for insurrection, and once again the language used has been painstakingly reconstructed from original testimony and carefully crafted into the screenplay.

Leigh's Lancashire is a rougher and rawer place than London, its politics less sophisticated. On the eve of Peterloo, Richard Carlile (Joseph Kloska) arrives at the Manchester lodgings of Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) to be told that his cosmopolitan republican rhetoric will not be required here; universal suffrage alone, insists Hunt, is more than enough for the North. Hunt was a complicated character with an ample ego and by no means an easy one to interpret through brief acquaintance on screen. Kinnear plays him as neither villain nor hero but as a cultivated Wiltshire gentleman hovering somewhat awkwardly between charismatic self-belief and a detached indifference towards the crowds who flock to hear him. When Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell) and Joseph Healey (Ian Mercer) travel down to the Elephant and Castle meeting in London to invite the great orator to Manchester, the cultural divide is plain. Hunt accepts the invitation but shows no interest in talking to them—a dramatic device that leaves the orator [End Page 227] looking distinctly disingenuous. The point is hammered home later in Manchester by Hunt's irritation at being subjected to uncomfortable lodgings and vulgar company in Joseph Johnson's sparsely furnished house for a week while he has his portrait painted and preparations for the meeting are completed, and then again on the day itself by Hunt's off-hand rejection of Bamford as a speaker. This appears to be based on the account given by Bamford in his memoirs, in which he records leaving the hustings before Hunt's arrival because he didn't recognize anyone on it and then, when Hunt did arrive, "I proposed to an acquaintance, that, as the speeches and resolutions were not likely to contain anything new to us, and as we could see them in the papers, we should retire awhile, and get some refreshment" (Passages in the Life of a Radical [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984], p.151). There is no evidence that Bamford ever expected to be...


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