Rout and rebellion

Until the bicentenary neared, generating a successful campaign for a memorial, Peterloo had little purchase on popular memory, writes Tom Hazeldine. Mike Leigh’s new film will help change that.

January 15, 2019 · 5 min read

We first glimpse the crowd through an upstairs window. A mass of pallid figures and block-colour banners, bathed in unbroken Manchester sunshine. Given the period setting, it looks like the prelude to the storming of the Bastille. England has rarely looked so alive on film.

In a country famous for its ‘stability’, the popular agitation for parliamentary reform following the Napoleonic wars was never going to end well. Fresh from indulging his taste for comic opera at the English National Opera, Mike Leigh has produced a fine dramatisation of the ensuing bloodbath – one that’s symptomatic of the left’s increasing cultural salience in what, with any luck, we’ll soon be calling Corbyn’s Britain.

This is a homecoming for Leigh, a Salfordian by upbringing, after a career spent largely in the London suburbs. It’s also his most ambitious picture, tying together the two major strings to his film-making bow, social commentary and historical features.

The film opens with a premonition of the coming carnage: a dead British soldier on a battlefield, presumably Waterloo. Nearby, a harmless-looking bugler wanders confusedly as the heavy guns sound. In the next sequence he is trekking home, pausing at a mill village to ask the way to Manchester, and finally collapsing into the arms of his mother Nell, played by Maxine Peake. When he next ventures out, into the pouring rain, it’s to search for a job in the town’s smithies.

Three settings

Beyond this, and despite the hulking great factories that dominate the skyline, the world of work hardly intrudes on the story. Three alternative settings are preferred. One is the state, in its various institutional forms: the House of Commons, voting to stuff the Duke of Wellington’s purse with gold; the Home Office of Lord Sidmouth, a cankered reactionary; and the Manchester assizes, presided over by the Judge Jeffries, who will issue the fatal order to disperse the reform demonstration.

The second is public meetings, which come with a regularity those on the left will be familiar with. This is an overwhelmingly verbal political culture: though we see a newspaper being printed, we don’t see one being read. Leigh is very taken with the power of the spoken word to move ‘ordinary people’. Bit by bit, the strong language hurled against ‘that infernal monster they call parliament’ stirs the ponderous menfolk in Nell’s family into a commitment to reform.

The third is the family home. Natural light pours into the one-up, one-down working-class quarters, illuminating each speaker, whereas the magistrates’ grander residences are scene to shifty goings on by candlelight. We could turn the sound off and still be in no doubt who’s on the side of the angels. Nell’s tirade against the landowning aristocracy in parliament for raising the price of bread through their tariffs on imported grain had reviewers at the press screening in Soho Square reaching for their notebooks. Working-class history is all very well, but Brexit’s endangering of free trade is a good deal closer to bourgeois hearts.

A difficulty for Leigh is that the reformers and the authorities are so little in contact with one another. Until arrests are made and beatings dealt out, there’s not much scope for conflict as each set of protagonists goes about its preparations. Nell’s family are all cut from the same cloth – no secrets or lies here – while in London, Lord Sidmouth and permanent secretary Henry Hobhouse are so much of the same mind they virtually finish each other’s sentences.

The best of the preliminary scenes are those in which these consensuses begin to fray. There is a tactical disagreement between two larger-than-life radicals, Middleton weaver Samuel Bamford and Wiltshire gentleman Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt over whether to arm some of the crowd for self-defence. ‘This is Lancashire, sir,’ warns Bamford, where the authorities are ‘politically and personally averse’ and ‘meetings invariably end in violence’.

King and Country

When the denouement comes, it’s a relief to see St Peter’s Fields looking so full. The preceding scenes of soldierly drilling up on the Lancashire moors had looked a bit underpopulated. Nell waits expectantly for the speeches, sharing her bread with strangers; Hunt and Bamford quarrel

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