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Byron Shire
March 9, 2021

Cinema Review: Peterloo

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As a filmmaker with a pronounced social conscience, and as a native Mancunian, Mike Leigh will have approached the story of the Peterloo massacre with both a heavy heart and fire in his belly. After the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo (1815), a bugler returns home to Lancashire, shell-shocked and dazed. He finds that the ‘sceptred isle’ for which he fought is riven with inequality and that restlessness among the factory workers of the north is finding expression through orators and revolutionaries who are demanding representation in parliament. Fearing sedition, the establishment’s response would be to repeal ‘habeas corpus’ (thus enabling authorities to detain people without legal procedure). By 1819, key figures among those who have not benefited from industrialisation are organising a major demonstration in Manchester to promote their cause. Collaborating with Dick Pope, his regular cinematographer, Leigh has a great eye for period as well as a refined sense of a period’s atmospherics – see Topsy Turvy (1999) for the definitive take on Gilbert and Sullivan. In this he departs from the traditional model of individual protagonist and antagonist – unless those opposites can be seen as the shimmering ideal of democracy and the reactionary forces of the status quo. A terrible sense of foreboding grows as Leigh, who also wrote the screenplay, leaves you in no doubt as to where his sympathies lie, even to the point of indulging in caricature when depicting the odious judges, ministers of the crown, and landowners who represent the ancient regime. This is an intense movie, built with attention to detail and a love of humanity, and it’s not entirely shy of humour – when the ‘celebrity speaker’ pompously demands his repast, the wife of the house looks to her husband and asks “What’s that?” As is so often the case, a largely unknown cast make it easier to become engrossed, free as we are from star-gazing. The final crowd scene is overwhelming and Leigh’s nod to the fourth estate reminds us of a time when newspapers were more than just advertising outlets. Fantastic.

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