WHEN Thomas Arne composed what is now a commonplace (and oft misquoted) song for James Thomson’s poem “Rule, Britannia” in 1740, with its chorus ending “Britons never shall be slaves”, Thomson was telling how things were before the Industrial Revolution changed everything forever.
Nowadays a nation using its military forces to suppress public support for political reform would incur global opprobrium, even intervention. But what happened on St Peter’s Field, Manchester on August 16, 1819, became a microcosm of progress toward today’s inalienable principles of universal freedom of speech and everyone’s right to stand for political office. In 1819, neither of those existed in Britain.
Writer/director Mike Leigh’s bulky (155 minutes) political history film begins at Waterloo with Britain and Prussia victorious against Bonaparte. A young redcoat bugler is sounding the ceasefire. In Britain there is joy that for Manchester millworkers fades with the onset of noisy, mechanical weaving and squalid living conditions.
Four years later, stuttering Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson) sees the seeds of major social change being prepared for sowing and orders one of Wellington’s generals to travel to Yorkshire to be ready in the event of an uprising that might disturb the established social order.
Orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) arrives a week before giving an address in Manchester. To hide him from the government, his supporters billet him with Joshua and Nellie (Pearce Quigley and Maxine Peake). The bugler is their son who intends to wear his red army jacket on the day.
These are but a few of the narrative pegs from which Leigh has hung his film climaxing in the Peterloo massacre. It’s not populist cinema. It’s cinema craft of a high order, especially in its staging of a day the legacy of which most of the world’s countries now enjoy.
At Dendy and Palace Electric