IT’S NOT AS IF I WASN’T KEEN - I’d been waiting to see Peterloo ever since I heard Mike Leigh was filming it. The opportunity to watch the story of the first mass protest reported on by (perhaps more than today) an independent, nascent British media seemed a gift, not just for movie buffs but to all who understand ‘history is about today.’
After all, the issues brought up by Peterloo - the killing of unarmed protestors in 1819, attempts to suppress a free press and free speech, a legislative body packed with a millionaire elite (on both sides of the House) - seem to hold unlimited potential for commenting on the nature of today’s most troubling political climate.
Leigh’s lengthy film (coming in at well over two hours) is an exquisite feast for the eyes and historically extraordinarily well researched. The script is characteristically sparse, as we would expect from Leigh, giving the audience time and space to savour the visual spectacle he creates. As we watch the bloated excesses of the ruling class, represented by the local magistracy and a debauched Prince Regent, it’s hard not to imagine we’ve entered one of those wonderfully lampooning cartoons by the artist James Gillray.
The frustrations, laughable idiosyncrasies, contradictions, and personal conflicts wrangled over at meetings after meetings in Peterloo, are familiar territory to any activist today. The scent of 19th century revolt is crafted with an attention to detail that could have made Peterloo a truly great film and a clarion call for the left.
I was, however, left unsatisfied, as if Leigh had left out half of the story. The concentration on historical accuracy, of rhetoric over narrative, seems to be at the cost of what would have been a more engaging film. A more intimate depiction of the lives of these people, who were willing to invest so much, on near starvation wages and scant resources, to attend the meeting at St Peter’s Field, would have done much to correct this.
There are achingly fleeting glimpses into the lives, the conditions, but I was left wanting more, much more. Yes, we see the excesses of the ruling class, the outrage of class injustice, but almost as caricatures. We are left to find out for ourselves that 15 unarmed protestors were killed, and up to 700 injured (if you can call babes in arms protestors) or that the journalists, even those from the Times with a reputation (then as now) for misreporting radical movements, did actually condemn the actions of the magistrates and militias.
Perhaps even worse, Peterloo didn’t emotionally move me but still, I celebrate that the film was made. Should you see it? Yes.
is on the Editorial Board of Labour Briefing and was until recently Vice chair of Momentum