Nigel Watson reviews Peterloo, showing at Plymouth Arts Centre until this Saturday (tickets available here).
After twenty years of war and the eventual defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, Britain although victorious, is in a very unstable state. The inequalities in the nation are highlighted by the fact that the House of Commons unanimously agrees to pay the Duke of Wellington £750,000 for achieving this great military success, yet like Joseph played by David Moorst, the foot soldiers are left to their own devices.
Joseph – shell-shocked and traumatised by his battlefield experiences – walks home to Manchester where there is no welcoming party. Instead, he finds there are no employment opportunities and people are on the edge of starvation due to the draconian taxes imposed upon them.
Director and writer Mike Leigh clearly lays out the different factions involved in the struggle to give the country stability and leadership at a time when revolution seemed likely to erupt at any moment.
The government mainly ruled by aristocrats and the foppish Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny) who is completely out-of-touch with the common people, believe the population should be subdued and punished like naughty children. The magistrates and constabulary in Manchester have a very similar attitude. Sentences for the most petty crimes can lead to deportation to Australia or hanging, and the constabulary is brutal and pitiless in the execution of its duties. The mill owners think of their workers as merely cogs in their money-making machines and feel they have to keep a grip on any demands by their employees for better rights or wages.
Like most of the urban population, Joseph and his family struggle to exist. In response to these circumstances we see the work of the Reformers who want to improve the lot of the workers. Even within their ranks they argue over whether they should use violence to strongly make their case or to simply keep it peaceful and rely on the strength of their arguments. Either way they do agree to arrange a massive protest at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, where they engage Henry Hunt (played by Rory Kinnear) a famous campaigner from London to deliver a speech to demand the reform of the parliamentary system to give better representation to the working classes.
The film spreads itself from the enclosed spaces of workers’ homes and ale houses to the large vistas of the neighbouring countryside, and the epic scenes of the final meeting at what was to become known as Peterloo – an ironic allusion to the triumph at Waterloo. The experiences of the lowly Joseph bookend the film, the main story itself is spread amongst many characters involved in the outcome of the fateful 16 August 1819 events.
The meetings by the different parties, and the many speeches and declarations, make this something of a history lesson but they are needed to put the ensuing events into their full perspective. This is a film about ideas that simmer away until they boil over into action and suppression.
Peterloo is an absorbing and thoughtful slice of history that tackles the complexities of a period of social and industrial upheaval. Inevitably it ends in a bloody battle between the conflicting forces and tragic consequences. Here is a warning from history that inequality and false news can be the powder keg for instigating even worse oppression or for triggering full-blown revolution.