As an American living in the UK, sometimes I feel like I have missed a lot of history lessons. In general, history classes in the US cover all of the important plot points of Medieval Europe (church, paintings, plague, poverty, general darkness, etc), eventually focusing on England with the Magna Carta, Tudors, Shakespeare, culminating in the eventual American Revolution. Then, our history books barely mention England until, you know, we save their butts in World War One and World War Two. There are a lot of problems with our perspective, but that is a post for another day!
With this in mind, I went to see Peterloo, a film about the British government opening fire and sending the calvary to attack a group of peaceful demonstrators seeking better representation in Parliament on August 16, 1819. Written and directed by Mike Leigh, this was a very thoughtfully organised interpretation of the events leading up to the day. Having never heard of the Peterloo Massacre, or Mike Leigh, I was a bit of a blank slate.
Essentially, Peterloo is an event-centred biopic. The poor working class in England during the early nineteenth century was destitute, barely hanging on, and living in very rough conditions on the brink of starvation, while upper classes enjoyed comfort and were mostly unaffected by oppressive legislation that drove up the price of food. Leigh created a fictional family to represent the struggles of the working/peasant class, centred on a young man who was a bugle player during the Battle of Waterloo between Napolean’s French forces and a coalition of “Anglo-allies,” who managed to return home to the hinterlands of Manchester somewhat unscathed. This is juxtaposed against brief mentions of General Sir John Byng, who also served in the war and came home to be celebrated, given the post of General Officer Commanding the Northern District and a lot of money upon his return to England. Byng was not in attendance at the demonstration in Manchester on August 16, 1819, because his horses were racing in Yorkshire.
The contrast between haves and the have-nots is the central theme in Peterloo. Needless to say, there are no clear heroes with the exception perhaps of Nellie, matriarch of our fictional working class family who manages to feed all of her children and grandchildren even under oppressive bans on corn that drive the cost of everything else up. The villains were portrayed in a way that almost comically made them easily identifiable, most notably Deputy Chief Joseph Nadin and the boisterous, anti-poor magistrates including the bombastic Reverend Charles Ethelson. They hated the thought of the poor organising together and issued harsh judgements and often feared revolt similar to the French Revolution. Even Henry Hunt, the so-remembered “radical” whose speech inspired nearly 80,000 people to gather in Saint Peters Fields in Manchester was portrayed as a somewhat vain snob, perhaps inspired by a description of him by Samuel Bamford.
Leigh does a fantastic job of illustrating the vast, cultural differences form the lowest members of British society during this time to the highest. One such example was the depiction of then Prince Regent George of Wales who lives a life so lavish he is even drastically out of touch with Parliament, the same Parliament that actively excluded people such as Nellie and Samuel Bamford. One of the best details included in the film that illustrated the difficult situation of the poor versus the higher classes was the teeth. I was quite impressed by the depiction of people’s teeth, never a focus of the film but noticeable nonetheless. Often times, it is easy to put on period costumes – even peasant costumes – and give them a glamorous, nostalgic sheen. If this is your thing, then rewatch something starring Gwyneth Paltrow.
Another underlying theme in the rise of the lower classes was the role of the press. It was local newspapers that spread the word concerning Corn Laws and organising events to the people – and that would later retell the story of the actual Peterloo Massacre to the rest of the world. In times like these, it was a welcome reminder of why a free press is a necessary bulwark of true democratic society. Fun fact: The Guardian was actually founded in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre.
To conclude, I highly recommend this film if you enjoy history and have some patience. There are nods to the struggle of women in the film, and often these type of historical films focus on the men in charge, but Leigh does a decent job of portraying women as active and essential parts of the story. Be warned, the poster makes it seem as though this is an epic battle movie; however, there is not actually a lot of war action if that’s your jam. There are many letters being read aloud by many different characters, most of whom are based on real people. and in this way the film has a tendency to plod along – but the presentation and story are compelling that it is worth a few slow bits. With an air of authenticity, Leigh crafts the story of Peterloo in a way that reminds us that issues such as equal representation remain crucial and relevant even in twenty-first century world events.