Power is never given, it is only taken. The marchers at Saint Peter’s Field, Manchester learnt this at their cost. They thought that their demands for universal suffrage were fair and justified and two hundred years of history have proven them to be right. They thought that a mass movement of non-violent protest would change society the way they wanted it; and that exact technique worked for Gandhi in India comparatively shortly after their seminal attempt failed. In short, like most left wing types, they thought that people were essentially good, and that when presented with undeniable logic, the powers-that-were, would simply accede to superior logic and loosen their grip on power and share it with the masses of their own volition. Sadly those who planned the march to St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, severely overestimated the ruling classes’ altruism and empathy with the working class. The outcome was tragic, as it frequently is.
The film starts slowly. Grotty looking peasant apes walk around outdoors in the British north country allowing the audience to try to come to terms with how awful the weather can be in those parts. Just when you’ve come to the conclusion that they must be intellectually sub-normal because they’re wandering around outdoors in such filthy weather to little obvious purpose, the director adroitly turns your conclusions on their head. The damp unhappy looking figures go inside and begin arguing very intelligently – about politics. As they argue (which one member of my party found profoundly boring) they sketch in the power structure in which they live, and their place it. One realises very quickly that they are completely justified in being dissatisfied and that they are proposing to create their model society very much like the one we have now. This, of course, engenders the hope that their idealism will succeed and that the emancipation we probably take for granted now will be achieved by peaceful means.
At the same time, the film’s name, faint recollection of a secondary school history class that never quite managed to become an outright nap, the marcher’s chant of “liberty or death” – all go to fuel a certain feeling of cynicism that the two sides differences can be peaceably resolved. Added to that, are the memory of any number of pro-democracy protests being violently “dispersed” on the TV news. At the same time while more ringing political tub-thumping filled the screen, I found myself wibbling “But Gandhi pulled it off just about a hundred years later” and the marchers kept marching and chanting, and the parasites of the ruling class kept discussing them, and the tension mounts.
I’ve made great efforts to write this review so that it is as spoiler free as possible, and I’m certainly not about to spoil the ending now. On St Peter’s Field Manchester the direction of Britain balanced on a knife edge; by extension the evolution of all the pink bits on the map, balanced too. “Peterloo” was the moment of praxis and I heartily recommend seeing the film so that you can set youself to considering the quite profound issues that it dredges up.
My companion found it deathly boring and irritating; I found it invigorating and thought-provoking. Most oddly it occurred to me that history seems to be repeating itself- even now in the twenty-first century we have our own version of George the third in the form of Donald Trump, slumped on the throne “like a sack of potatoes”, face a worrying shade of red from the effort of attempting to piss purple; issuing weird largely incomprehensible ejaculations of kingly power that accomplish little but worrying those who happen to listen, while at the same time, across the globe, the poor seem to be being trodden on by those who inherited their power, usually from unspeakably nasty parents. In fact, the wonderful thing about the film “Peterloo” is not that it makes the past seem similar to the present, but that it reminds the viewer that the events of St Peter’s Field in 1819m seem to be happening over and over again around the world at an increasingly frenetic pace, faster even than the news cycle, each nightmare played out at cartoon speed on the screens of a billion views who do their best to ignore the enormity of the panorama presented to them.
“Peterloo” is a exceptionally good and fascinating film; at the very least it is another masterwork from the master Mike Leigh.
(C) Alex Rieneck 2019