Film Review: Peterloo (2018)

Based around a real historical event that happened in Manchester in 1819, British director Mike Leigh directed this superb drama looking at the plight of the working classes following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, in 1815. Assembling a large cast of some of the best British acting talent, and searching the country for authentic locations, Leigh delivered a long film (Two hours and thirty minutes) that is rich in historical accuracy and period detail.

In 1816, conditions for the working classes in Britain were terrible. Rich landowners and factory owners paid tiny wages for long hours at work. In the cotton mills of Lancashire, that work was very dangerous, and done by all age groups, including very small children. Most families barely had enough to put food on the table, and the imposition of the Corn Laws banning imports of corn forced up the price of bread to unaffordable levels.

There was also no representation for normal people, as only landowners and nobles were allowed to vote in elections. With King George III incapacitated by mental illness, his foppish son The Prince Regent was in control of the country, and his lavish lifestyle caused outrage at the time. The Reform Party sought to achieve better conditions for the working classes, with the right of one man, one vote, and proper contracted and safe working conditions. But government agents and spies infiltrated the meetings, as they feared a revolution like the one that had happened in France, in 1789.

The story follows one family, and their friends and neighbours. Returning home with PTSD after his harrowing experience at the battle of Waterloo, son Joseph can find no work. His mother sells pies to make enough money to feed the family, and the rest of his relatives work long hours in the local cotton mill. All are interested in the Reform Party, and attend meetings urging protest against their living conditions and lack of voting rights. Very soon, they come under the watchful eye of government agents, as the film starts to build to the climax in 1819.

Despite this being a ‘worthy’ film, full of long speeches, and a lot of regional dialect used, I never found its pace too slow. I was completely invested in the life of the family, helped by a wonderful performance from the excellent Maxine Peake as the mother. When the Manchester reformers ask a famous orator to come and address a public meeting, they have to use the large site of St Peter’s Field in Manchester, as it is to be the largest public gathering ever seen in the north of England. There will be no violence, and no weapons carried. Families will dress in their best clothes, and march to the field together, accompanied by musicians, and carrying banners and flags.

They choose a Monday, a working day, as their absence from their jobs will also serve as a protest to the wealthy owners, and the Magistrates who dominate their lives with an iron hand. This worries the government, so the local Yeomanry and Cavalry detachments are mobilised, in case of civil unrest. Once the famous orator begins to speak, the Magistrates instruct the military to disperse the crowd. What followed was later described in the newspapers as ‘The Peterloo Massacre’, using the idea of Waterloo to impart the scale of the slaughter on the day.

Around thirty people were killed instantly, many of them women, children, and babies. Over seven hundred people were injured, by swords, bullets, bayonets, or being trampled by horses. Many of those would later die from their injuries, and some were so badly injured they could never work again.

This is not a film for everybody, but as historical dramas go I thought it was outstanding. A wonderful cast, great script, and authenticity throughout.

Here’s a short trailer.

43 thoughts on “Film Review: Peterloo (2018)

  1. Sounds excellent, and that’s coming from a man who isn’t the biggest fan of historical dramas. Well, most of the time anyway – they just bug me with the (usually) royalty and the romance and the clothing as well. It’s all so formal. But I always love a revolution film – Les Miserables anyone? – and will be sure to check Peterloo out after your glowing words. Cheers, Pete!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading. I love Mike Leigh fims. Have you see ‘Nuts In May’? A classic. Also British films like ‘Sightseers’, ‘A Field In England’,and ‘The Kill List’.
      Leigh can do no wrong with me. Excellent observational skills, and always perfect casting. He went the extra mile with ‘Peterloo’, adding superb photography. (I’m a sucker for films that are photographed. (Lawrence of Arabia, There Will Be Blood, It Follows, The Thin Red line’, ‘Great Expectations’ (David Lean again), ‘Come And See’, ‘The Conformist’ ,’Everlasting Moments’, and so on…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Nuts in May – another one I need to see. And I think it’s on Amazon, so I’ll try and watch it soon. Mike Leigh I don’t know much about, but clearly I need to. I’ll sit down and try to educate myself with a few of your recommendations.

        Did you like There Will Be Blood? I really need to watch that as well. Daniel Day-Lewis is one hell of an actor, and who doesn’t love an antihero? It’s moved up the list.


        1. I have written about ‘There Will Be blood’ before. It is wonderfully photographed, and sumptuous to watch. Daniel is suitably ‘Day-Lewis’, and in this film that works perfectly. It is powerful to watch, and doesn’t settle for a conventional ending.
          Best wishes, Pete.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember studying around this in undergrad history, there were a few more “moments” too, but eventually the working class managed to organise, but it was a long road. This was certainly born of the inspiration coming out of France, and prior to Marx and then Keir Hardie. Tumultuous times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 100 years later, after the end of WW1, things were still no better for the working classes. Nothing much changed until 1945, with the election of the Labour Government following WW2.
      Thanks, PV.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I too enjoyed this film and I recognized a chainmaker’s workplace. I know nothing about these places until I read Ruth Coulson’s Chainmaker’s series. Do take a look as I had no idea that working conditions were that bad and in the Chainmaker’s Daughter the main character gets involved with the Women’s movement of the day. I hope they make a film of those one day.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I haven’t seen that one, but it definitely interests me and I think I might even order it. By the way, we watched an excellent film last night – ‘Extortion’. Couldn’t even stop watching to make a cup of tea, lol.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. In India, something similar happened at Jaliawala bagh in Punjab state in 1919. General Dyer of the British Govt banned all public gatherings but the notice was not widely publicised. People gathered to protest against the Government peacefully. None of had ammunition. Dyer and his troops entered the garden, blocking the main entrance behind them, took up position on a raised bank, and with no warning opened fire on the crowd for about ten minutes, directing their bullets largely towards the few open gates through which people were trying to flee, until the ammunition supply was almost exhausted. They fired 1650 rounds. around 1000 people died and 1500 injured, many of them were children. General Dyer was lauded for his actions in the House of Lords and never brought before the court. He was just stopped from promotion and called back from India.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, Pete. It is painful to think that some people thought a mass murderer worthy of accolades. Gandhi shows it in passing reference, but consider 1000 dead people 1500 injured. I know the House of Commons was against it, but nothing was done to show any regrets.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Peterloo is a superb and in many ways beautiful production, reminding me of how some things never change. We only have to look at our present day government to see this.

    Having said that, I sense change is in the air. I have no idea how it will manifest but with the onslaught of the technological age, climate change and over population it would seem that we have reached a tipping point – or the perfect storm. The pandemic will have contributed to this equation. Only time will tell……

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I have to confess I can’t watch this film, Pete. The primary reason is that I know the outcome, and that fills me with many emotions; I abhor violence, even when it’s simulated for the screen, and I am saddened that this sort of mass protest is still necessary in the supposedly ‘enlightened’ twenty-first century, with the soldiers’ sabres replaced by paramilitary police batons, rubber bullets and water cannon. The government still fears us, and violent repression is always their first recourse from mass protest. I agree that this film shouldn’t be described as ‘worthy’, but it is absolutely worthwhile; will it change anything? Probably not, but we can only hope, nevertheless. Cheers, Jon.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I suspect the film will change nothing of course, but it serves as a reminder that not much has changed since 1819. Getting the voting rights they strived so long and hard for didn’t seem to alter the outcome of many working-class lives.
      It is a lovely film to look at in terms of photogrpahy and production, and the violence is only at the very end. Leigh did a great job of bringing history to life, in my opinion.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 2 people

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