Peterloo – Shining a Light into a Dark Corner of British History


In much the same way Paul Greengrass portrayed the deadly way English forces opened fire on peaceful Irish protesters in 1972 (“Sunday Bloody Sunday”), Mike Leigh here dives further back into a dark chapter of English history.
For a slice of history that many don’t know about, also set very north of London, “Peterloo” shines a light.

Although considered in the western world as the cradle of democracy, England was not always one man one vote. In Manchester what was to be a peaceful demonstration to rally for one man one vote turned to a bloody massacre in 1819. The film opens at the close of Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated after nearly 20 years of battle. Alone bugler struggles home, and he is last seen at the end of the film still wearing his colors, cut down on his own turf buy his own countrymen. In between writer director Leigh builds a variety of characters in telling the story.

The poor are dramatically poor, living in squalid conditions. They work in cotton factories, which are dramatically portrayed as loud and dangerous yet efficient. As the crowd assembles for the peaceful protest, a coterie of uppercrust men stand mostly aloof from these circumstances, looking down on the rabble that they believe are lucky to be employed.

One nobleman, Mr. Hunt (superbly played by Rory Kinnear, often seen in recent James Bond films) is an orator who decries the disparity in wealth. After several Mancunians travel south to see him speak eloquently in London, Hunt is brought to Manchester as the key speaker in a gathering that leaves the factories and homes empty.

The production values are excellent, with the drab attire and households making you almost feel gritty by watching. Further veracity and attention to detail is evidenced by the almost uniformly yellowed teeth of the characters. The outdoor scenes are equally magnificent with splendid rolling hills and bucolic fields. The acting is almost uniformly excellent, notably Maxine Peake and Kenneth Headley among a large and talented cast.

The massacre is agonizing to watch, as helpless and unarmed men, women and children are slaughtered by the military on horseback.

Leigh unfortunately goes over the top in the penultimate scene. Several of the Mancunian elite visit British royalty to try to explain the massacre, but the latter are portrayed as Monty Python characters: aloof, clueless, brainless.
The recent documentary on the murder of Miami Showband members during The Troubles of the early 1970s is another glimpse into sordid British (para)military behavior.

“Peterloo” is a gripping film about a part of English history many would choose to forget, but should not.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.