'Peterloo' Details an 1819 Manchester, England Massacre
- Written by Diane Carson
Two hundred years ago, 1819, sixty thousand men, women and children gathered at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, England, to protest their political and personal oppression. Fewer than two percent of the male population could vote, authoritarian laws kept working people in poverty — hungry and ill — unemployment was rampant, and pitiless judges imposed harsh penalties for minor infractions.
The famous speaker from London, John “Orator” Hunt, had barely begun to address those demanding Parliamentary reform when a mounted British military contingent, swords drawn, charged into the peaceful, weaponless reformers, killing at least a dozen and injuring hundreds. Because this occurred only months after the Battle of Waterloo, reporters on hand, who thoroughly covered the event, dubbed it the Peterloo Massacre, hence writer / director Mike Leigh’s film title, “Peterloo.”
The collective amnesia about this tragedy to this day prompted the experienced, multi-award winning Leigh to tackle this important history, believing, as he says in a Cineaste interview, that “historical films are also social commentaries . . . saying to the audience that you have to take political responsibility.” The relevance to today’s milieu is remarkable, and it is the careful depiction of what these individuals endured that dominates the two-and-half hour film, without omitting the Tory government’s brutal retaliation against the Lancashire reform movement. The ruling elite, Lords, judges and military officers establish their tyrannical indifference and fear of a British version of the French revolution, but the subjugated masses have our attention.
Through numerous speeches at diverse gatherings and in informal interactions, Leigh meticulously details their living conditions and their powerless predicaments. Cinematographer Dick Pope makes the dust and dirt and the claustrophobic spaces real. Art direction adds a palpable presence for the clothes, food, and work. And Gary Yershon’s music intelligently adds atmosphere, with no music intruding into the massacre. 'Peterloo' is challenging, patience required but rewarded. I lived a year in Manchester, England, and never heard a word about the massacre. It’s about time.
At Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema.