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  • Colin Fraser


FOUR STARS British troops slaughtered innocent civilians in Manchester, 1819, an event thaat became known as Peterloo.

Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake


In 1819, government troops opened up on unarmed civilians at St Peter’s Field in the English town of Manchester. Suffering famine and chronic underemployment, mill workers had withdrawn their labour to (peacefully) protest their conditions and ask for the vote. The radical Henry Hunt was their guest speaker, a man for whom local magistrates had no time and consequently they called in the local yeomanry to clear the crowds with sabres, killing 18 people and injuring hundreds. The massacre became known, in ironic comparison to Wellington’s takedown of the French a few years earlier, as Peterloo.

Mike Leigh’s painstaking account of the political build up and bloody encounter that followed is something of a departure for the director better known for narrow, character dramas like HAPPY GO LUCKY or VERA DRAKE. Although he broadened out with his recent study of the painter in MR TURNER, this is near epic story telling as he draws in dozens of characters to bring to life the complex and rarely explored historical landscape of the times. There’s a documentary quality to the detail, and there’s a lot of detail.

The pay off is a fascinating account of this little known event, one that feels like a dirty secret that no one had wanted to talk about. The loss is in not being able to get cosy with a beautifully drawn, typically Leigh character; Sally Hawkin’s Poppy or Brenda Blethyn’s Cynthia from SECRETS AND LIES - there are too many here for that, and they’re surprisingly stiff company. That said, if you consider the event that became Peterloo as a character in itself, then this as multi-faceted and compelling as any Leigh has written. He revels in its striving nature, the beating heart, the torn outcome and all the mixed motivations that culminated in civil uprising.

You can’t get comfortable with PETERLOO, but you can certainly revel in the ambition of the film and the passion of its key players. What starts like a history lesson soon becomes a clarion call as it pays tribute to reformers past and present while reminding us to be ever vigilant of our government and those who enforce its agenda. Potent stuff, just not cosy.

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