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In the days when the story took place, not all men could vote. No women could. There were food shortages. The corn laws were causing problems. And people laboured for long long shifts in the mills for a pittance in wages. This was a long time before workplace health and safety as well, although it doesn't actually touch on that as much as you might have expected.
Manchester didn't have a police force. Or an MP. King George the third was unwell. And the prince regent was regularly embarrassing himself.
People could be sent to Australia for what we would now call a petty crime. Or hung.
There were those who wanted change, and they were called reformers. It was the efforts of some to get change that led to the meeting being arranged in the first place.
It's a long film, this, but that's because it takes it's time in explaining all of this. And since the director's aim was to educate and fill in knowledge gaps around this, that's fine. It is quite clever how it gets in details of the corn laws and habeas corpus. And let's be honest, if you asked a random sampling of people these days what the latter is, you might not find many who know.
It shows the magistrates and politicans, who are terrified of change. It shows the Prince Regent. In a very accurate depiction. And the ordinary working class folk. It's grim up north might be a stereotype, so it doesn't hurt to be remind what was fact at the time.
There's a lot of speakers. And speech making. And a fair few characters, who do drift in and out. But steadily, you get used to them. And the whole thing builds a momentum, so when it gets to the point where the protest is beginning, it becomes a hard watch as you know what is going to happen.
None of which will prepare for you the actual massacre, a superbly directed scene that will stay with you for a while.
It ends as best it can after, and the last scene was probably the right way to do such.
The great thing about this is that it does make you think. About rights and things that we do tend to take for granted these days. it will make you want to learn more as well. I was straight onto Wikipedia after to find out more about Henry Hunt.
But it's not hard to follow. So long as you're prepared to use your brain and concentrate. So if you are prepared to give this a chance, you will be well rewarded.
In terms of acting and production values there is little to criticise, though some of the distant backdrops could be spotted.
My overall feeling is that the story needs telling, but that this rendition risks losing a significant part of its audience, and thus the message.
Mike Leigh has done an excellent job, documenting this momentous event in British history, an event conveniently airbrushed out of my secondary school education. Imagine that.
A good 2.5 hrs long, it would make a decent 12 part Netflix drama. Though, he'd never get the funding for that.
It is long, it is educational, it is historical, it is incredibly worthy. Watch it and draw parallels with the Britain of today. FPTP electoral system, zero-hours contracts, food banks, Brexit, et al.
i gave it a 9.
The film opens in the aftermath of Waterloo as demobbed soldiers make their way home on foot across Britain. one of them is Joseph (David Moorst) who returns to Manchester. Joseph is not well, suffering from what we would now call PTSD, still wearing his old uniform, he staggers around Manchester, fruitlessly seeking work. Through Joseph and his family we see the suffering of ordinary people in those times. The Corn Laws kept the price of bread high, wages were low, unions were suppressed. Another device used to fill in the background is the singing weaver (Dorothy Atkinson) who in two songs gives a potted history of the woes of the common people. But it wasn't just the immediate economic issues which concerned them, there was also a realisation that their lack of a vote prevented them from advancing their interests. Indeed in that era of rotten parliamentary boroughs, Manchester had no representation in the House of Commons. The build up to the Massacre takes up much of the film we see the clerks at the Home Office reading intercepted mail and reports from Manchester magistrates. Informers tell of what is happening at Reform Society meetings; agent provocateurs are sent in to encourage the wilder elements to resort to violence rather than to campaign for reform and the vote.
There are also those merchants and minor industrialists of Manchester who are at the helm of the Reform Movement, they publish the Manchester Observer (forerunner of The Guardian). They bring the reformer Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) to speak at the planned Peterloo meeting. Banned by magistrates it has to be put off for a week. The magistrates haven't finished though, they plan attacks on the new meeting and the Yeomanry prepare their weapons, the regular Army is also readied. On the day of the meeting (16 August 1819) which is called to demand Representation of the People and Democracy, 100,000 gather in the Peterloo fields. As Henry Hunt rises to speak a magistrate reads the Riot Act out the window of a building on the other side of the square, unheard by anyone other than his fellow magistrates. The Yeomanry and Hussars ride into the crowd, slashing at people with their sabres, joined by infantry with fixed bayonets. It is impossible for many to escape and eighteen people are killed with hundreds injured. The Government saw this as as a victory, even inking Peterloo to Waterloo. But from this terrible scene the green shoots of democracy grew.
The Yeomanry, Government and local magistrates felt they were crushing, Anarchy,an English version of the French Revolution, the reality was that they were attacking mor a peaceful version of the American Revolution: a protest against taxation without representation. People also maddened by hunger, low wages and repression of their attempts to organise unions. The Massacre is filmed in a choreographed manner without taking away from the slaughter which occurred. Meetings in dark halls and taverns are contrasted with gatherings and marching practice on the bright green and sunny Saddleworth Moor. The talk and debate is also central to the film but at times !9th Century Mancunian dialect may be difficult to follow.
Leigh delivers a vivid historical drama which falls short of being a classic due to being overstuffed with characters. This might better have been related in a six hour TV series. 7.5/10.
Another way that Leigh and long-time DP collaborator Dick Pope have until recently been subtle and understated is in visual style. Their last film, Mr. Turner, broke with that habit and offered a nineteenth-century England that looked a whole lot like it had been painted by J.M.W. Turner. It was a gorgeous movie to look at, but it's modeling on the painter's work seemed a visual gimmick rather than a style. With Peterloo, Leigh and Pope offer a fully personal visual mastery of the medium. The British landscape has rarely as ever looked so Arcadian on the screen, this despite the fact that this is a gritty tale of difficult, impoverished lives. Performers are blocked within that landscape in ways that subtly suggest their capture by the historical forces around them. If Soviet silent cinema offered a Marxist aesthetic of montage, then this is Marxist mise-en-scene.
Peterloo is also an interesting experiment in cinema as not simply historical narrative but historical excavation and reenactment. Leigh researched the minutes of early nineteenth century political meetings of the British poor demanding democratic reform. Much of the film is composed of word for word recitals of these dictations. This certainly give the scenes a sense of authenticity. But because Leigh refuses to edit or exorcise anything, the reenactment scenes sometimes drag on and become a tad boring.
There are a few times when the transition from the historical speeches to the collectively constructed characterizations and dialogue is a bit clumsy, but mostly Leigh and his cast create believable, human characters from these now largely forgotten names.
The only really false notes in the movie are those that deal with the "wicked" aristocracy. Leigh's class hatred is such that he cannot even bring himself to depict the members of the oppressing class as humans but rather only as grotesque clowns. The viewer feels as if they have stumbled from tasteful historical epic to Three Stooges slapstick.
The history is dark but fascinating. It is eerie but enlightening to see the parallels to current events. From the filmmaker, Mike Leigh, who brought us Mr. Turner. Leigh takes a close look at some of the characters caught in the turmoil and it makes for a compelling portrait of the time. I do not mind films being long, but this film was unnecessarily long. Leigh should have hired the editor from The Sisters Brothers. Seen at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
Leigh's film is a long haul, and then doesn't really deliver the pay-off. I had no immediacy or sense of anger at the finale.
As a bookend the Waterloo beginning is really useful. But then at the end, you're not told how many died, how it influenced the formation of the Guardian etc.
As with the onset of the French revolution, the key issue is never quite resolved in these movies, or in the social justice bleatings of today: after the dust settles, who will be in charge and what will the new rules be? Will the current oppressors be replaced by worse oppressors? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, both in labor and management. Government meddling has and will cause tragedy.