Watching Mike Leigh's film Peterloo makes you feel like you were actually there on the very day the massacre took place in St Peters Fields Manchester in 1819.
Peterloo is not a documentary film, although it is well researched and historically accurate. The major historical figures are all portrayed, but it is working class people who are in the centre of this picture.
This film is not about Kings and Queens making history. It does though show in vivid colour the cruelty of the ruling aristocracy, the brutality of the police chief, and the callousness of the ruling elite.
In Peterloo Leigh has made a film where workers’ lives and their collective struggles are centre stage.
We see the working class talking and arguing over what is to be done about poverty and exploitation. We see our class collectively struggling to have its voices heard for the first time in history.
In 1819 60,000 workers marched to see the radical reformer Henry “Orator”Hunt speak at a mass meeting.
Leigh breathes life into Hunt, a gentleman farmer who embraced the cause of reform, was a brilliant, popular speaker—but also an unashamed self-promoter, and egocentric.
Oratory is not restricted to Hunt. Workers are shown making passionate speeches.
We hear the weaver Sam Bamford. But also three spinners John Johnson, John Bagguley, and Samuel Drummond. These angry working class lads are shown speaking to mass meetings with passion and energy and commitment.
The leading female reformer at Peterloo was Mary Fildes who led the Manchester Female Reform Society.
Rather than cast actor Maxine Peake to play the “leading lady”, she plays the “ordinary” Nellie Ogden.
Leigh makes Nellie a pivotal character. She is not a reformer and believes that there is “too much talk and not enough action”. By following the story of Nellie and the Ogden family we are taken on a journey to St Peter's Fields.
This makes it possible to understand the final scene that depicts the massacre. There are no overhead drone shots. The filming is up close and personal.
Leigh made an “ensemble film” where actors collaborate to develop together their characters, their stories and histories. This brings an energy, intensity, and realism to the film.
Leigh went to Salford grammar school but, he said, “We never learnt anything about what happened. St Peter’s Fields is a ten minute walk from our school.”
After finding out about the whole history of the events Leigh says he was inspired to make the film. “I wanted to give two fingers to period movies,” said Leigh at the Manchester premier last week.
He has done more than that. Leigh has made a film about the past that resonates and is very relevant to the world we live in today.