Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth, like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many – they are few!
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, thought by many to be the greatest political poem ever written, was inspired by one, singular event. In the Peterloo massacre of 16 August, 1819, sabre-wielding soldiers on horseback attacked an unarmed and peaceful crowd of some 60,000 people in Manchester, who had gathered to hear the orator, Henry Hunt. There were 18 casualties, including a child of two, and many hundreds of injuries.
Shelley was in Italy, but composed the poem as soon as he heard news of this barbaric episode. His words would not appear in print until 1832, ten years after his death, having being judged too inflammatory. It’s not coincidental that 1832 was also the year of the Great Reform Act that corrected the worst abuses of the British parliamentary system.
That long delay makes me more willing to accept Mike Leigh’s staunchly black-and-white portrayal of the state of England in 1819. The working classes are not all angels in Peterloo, but they are decent, upstanding types who will accept any indignity short of starvation. The ruling classes, on the other hand, are either sneering, raging bastards, like the magistrates of Manchester; or ludicrous fops, such as the Prince Regent.
Leigh’s villains are so villainous one instinctively wants to dismiss them as caricatures, but the 13 years that passed from the date of the massacre to the passing of the Reform Act, suggests that he isn’t exaggerating.
In the modern world even the most outrageous tyrants call their countries ‘republics’, and go through the charade of rigged elections. In England in the early 19th century, politicians saw every popular call for reform as another French Revolution in the making. Movements in favour of a more democratic electoral system were viewed as mere sedition.
The equation was simple: God had arranged it that some men were born to rule, others born to serve. Justice was an absolute that showed little mercy to wrong-doers, who were summarily imprisoned, hanged, or shipped off to Botany Bay. To protect the wealth and privilege of the few, the many were obliged to suffer ever greater privations.
In 1815, in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, the government had imposed steep tariffs on imported grain. The so-called Corn Laws assisted landowners but raised food prices for the rest of the population, making it difficult for workers to feed heir families. By 1819 this was a cause of unrest and simmering political tensions.
Leigh is relatively skilful in explaining all this without putting stagey question-and-answer sessions into his characters’ mouths. What he does instead is present a marathon set of speeches, most of them drawn from actual historical records, making us part of the working-class audience that listened to the reformers and demagogues.
In a film that runs for more than two-and-a-half hours, the massacre and its aftermath occuppies only the last 20 minutes. The bulk of Peterloo is an extended history lesson in which the reformers and their opponents deliver one long discourse after another. Some viewers will appreciate this radical approach to film-making, others will find it unbearable.
The other disconcerting aspect of Peterloo is that it is a feature without a discernible set of leading characters. Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) may be crucial to the story, but there is a varied collection of subplots and secondary figures that keep striding on and off stage. Although we spend time with a woman called Nellie (Maxine Peake) and her family, they are used as as embodiments of working class values, just as Karl Johnson, playing Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, is representative of the political class.
In other hands Peterloo could have been a horribly mechanical piece of work. Leigh, however, is a master at coaxing excellent, realistic performances from his actors, who are allowed room to ad lib. There are also lyric interludes, such as a string trio playing in the countryside, that break up the relentless flow of rhetoric.
We are led to the massacre scene as part of a long, slow build-up, as the tension becomes palpable. The actual event is a shambles in which people are confused as to what is happening. Panic sets in when the local yeomanry start waving their sabres about, and everything grows more chaotic. It’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking, managing to combine high drama with a sense of detachment.
On the 200th anniversary of Peterloo Leigh is asking why this seminal moment in English history is not better known and more widely commemorated. He is also posting a few unsubtle messages about the need for people to take political processes into their own hands if they want to achieve fairness from politicians too closely aligned with the interests of wealth and power.
The ongoing soap opera that is Brexit was brought about by widespread political complacency. Peterloo, as the spark that lit the torch for political reform, is a reminder that those who don’t stand up for what they believe will find themselves disempowered by those for whom self-interest is a pressing motivation. Lions that slumber too long are left for dead.
Written & directed by Mike Leigh
Starring Rory Kinnear, Neil Bell, Philip Jackson, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, Karl Johnson, Tim McInnerny, Ian Mercer, Rachel Finnegan, Tom Gill
UK, rated M, 154 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 11 May, 2019