Peterloo

No films in the past fortnight, because holiday, but what with it being the Peterloo anniversary, I couldn’t miss the showing in Manchester City Library, especially as I’m not sure if this will ever transfer to Germany.

To take the self-evident bits first, there are some good – even great – scenes, of which more later. Added to this, any Mike Leigh film is always worth a visit, especially about such an important topic.

Having said that, there was way too much exposition for me. The film didn’t really get going until 45 minutes before the end, which for a 2 1/2 hour film is pushing it a bit. And it somehow managed to introduce all the main characters while by passing the most important tensions.

So although you do get occasional scenes of Maxine Peake saying “it’ll never work”, she goes along to the demo anyway, without us really experiencing why, other than this is what northern women do. Now this could be fair enough for an individual character, but I feel that somehow there’s an underplaying of how spectacular the mobilisation for the Peterloo demo really was.

50,000 people in a much lower populated Britain than today and with no affordable transport for the poor didn’t just make the long March to Manchester, but they struck (the demo was on a work day). This must have been the result of a series of heated workplace arguments, though all we really see is some relatively small open air meetings where the speakers know that the audience are onside, so don’t say much more than we are going to win. Which doesn’t do much for the dramatic tension.

But, moaning over, once we get to the day itself, the film suddenly finds itself. The magistrates have a big set to about how to deal with a demo is much bigger than expected. It’s sort of a ruling class equivalent of the collectivisation scene in Ken loach’s Land and Freedom – they express opposing positions, have a big row, then recognise their common interest in carrying out the majority decision as one.

And the scenes of the massacre are heart rending, perfectly capturing the sense of chaos familiar to those of us who’ve been on demos which have been apparently arbitrarily attacked by police (though our experience was seldom so fatal). Added to that the usual experiences of not being able to hear the speaker and having forgotten to bring any food with you.

So, although it took a (long) while to get going, it was worth the effort, with special mentions to Greg Kinnear who preens it up as the radical but vain speaker Henry Hunt, and the never disappointing Maxine Peake. Very excited at seeing her on stage as Nico this evening

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