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Peterloo

Mike Leigh

Veteran British filmmaker Mike Leigh makes a welcome return to our screens with his first feature since the magnificent Mr. Turner. Returning to the 19th century, Leigh turns his gaze on the moment when Britain's working class began to fight for its right to representation, up against an establishment that was determined to block what it viewed as an encroachment on its own privileges. This is a sobering look at the context and consequences of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, when British government militias responded with violence to a crowd calling for political reform.

“...the moment when Britain’s working class began to fight for its right to representation.”

Four years after the British and their allies roundly defeated Napoleon on the field at Waterloo, a different kind of battle was fought, this time on English soil, at St. Peter's Field in Manchester – an event that journalists quickly dubbed the Peterloo Massacre. Peterloo began as a riot involving unarmed civilians and British cavalry and became an infamous flashpoint in the country's history of parliamentary reform.

Leigh tells the story from the perspective of key players: those suffering through unemployment, poverty, and famine in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars on one side; the magistrates and military authorities on the other. Scathing in his depiction of the powers that be, Leigh reserves most of his attention for the Peterloo victims: the protesters, many of them out-of-work textile workers, and those political reformers advocating for their right to vote.

While it is plain where his sympathies lie, Leigh is even-handed in his overall approach and Peterloo adroitly, and with a fine sense of period detail, brings this critical event and its history-altering fallout into new light.