Monday, 12 November 2018

The Man In The White Hat

People, passion, poverty, power, politics and protests... These are the key themes of Mike Leigh's "Peterloo". 
It begins on the battlefield in Belgium - Wellington's army may have won, but the ground is littered with the injured and dying. 
We focus on one confused soldier, stumbling along [today he'd be diagnosed with PTSD] Jacob is played by David Moorst [top picture; shown here on set with Mike Leigh] He finally staggers all the way home, still in his red uniform jacket, to Manchester, and collapses in the arms of his mother (the redoubtable Maxine Peake) She's matriarch of a hardworking family, who are employed at the cotton mill... Down in London, Parliament is awarding Wellington £750,000 for saving the nation from Bonaparte. But up north, due to the Corn Laws, people are starving, barely able to buy a small loaf to feed an entire family. The film is shot on Saddleworth Moor, outside Manchester - and for city scenes, today's Lincoln stands in for Georgian Manchester.
Fast forward 4 years...the people want to make their voices heard - but the growing city of Manchester has only 1 MP. There is no proper proportional representation across the country. Orator Henry Hunt, is called up from London to speak to the people.
The people gather from all over the place, and march from the moor into St Peter's Fields, where they plan to have a peaceful rally, a "family day out" and listen to this important reformer, in his trademark white hat.
But the powers that be panic, convinced that there will be a bloody revolution [like those dreadful Frenchies] and send in the troops.

And they ride into the crowd, waving sabres -Men, women, children mown down where they stand. Including Jacob, who remains bewildered to the last by the carnage that continues to surround him, then crumples into a dead heap for his distraught mother to find.
The horrified reporters from the London Times and other papers, walk round the deserted square, looking at the bloody, broken bodies- struggling to find the words to send back to their editors. "St Peter's is Peterloo" says one, and the name remains with us to this day. Hunt went to prison for his part in the affair [his hat, but not his head, stove in by a sabre!] Some ordinary people were punished by the courts, and others lost their jobs, at least one man died because the doctor refused to treat any of those at the rally.
Good points- a tale well told, with [from what I have read] a fair deal of historical accuracy. Stellar cast, with some of the best of our nations actors playing significant roles. Great costumes - but I did wonder if Philip Jackson's buttons were a just a bit too modern for the period? Peake portrayed a frustrated mother really well - torn between stoically accepting her awful lot in life, and supporting her family's desire to rise up and bring reform. The contrast between the cheery atmosphere as they march to the assembly, with singing and pipes and drums - and the violence that ensued - coupled with the bloated, selfish officials making foolish decisions was very effective.
Less good - Leigh's concern for using every fact he has unearthed means he seems to have thrown in every historical character connected with the event. Alastair McKenzie [from Monarch of the Glen] plays General John Byng- one of Wellington's officers at the battle,deployed to organise the militia 'up in the north'. Except on the day in question he is away at the Races. Considering his major contribution to the story is to be AWOL, he got an awful lot of screen time. Tim McInerney is the odious Prince Regent. Not sure if he wasn't just a little too OTT. In an effort to include everyone, Leigh did end up with some characters not being properly 'rounded'. Having fewer significant people might have helped a little. Bob felt it was a bit 'wordy' in places. Did they really talk in such high falutin terms? ["Just a light repast, my dear" requests Hunt of a baffled Mancunian servant girl]
Because it is how such historical films often end, we both expected a few facts to come up at the end - you know "15 were killed and estimates of up to 700 injured. The dreaded Corn Laws were later repealed. The incident led to the founding of the Manchester Guardian newspaper"...but nothing like that. Just the [extremely long] credits.
Despite my reservations, I would still rate it *****
Do go and see it if you have the chance - I'd be particularly keen to hear what current Manchester residents [like Steph and Gary] and any former Northerners now in the south [LH/Martha] think of it.
"Give me liberty or give me death!" shouts the young reformer at their preparation meeting up on the moor. I'm reminded of the line in Ward Howe's great Battle Hymn written 40 years later "As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free!" 
This is the week for remembering - and reminding ourselves that the price of freedom is a high one.

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like an interesting movie. Thank you for the review. :)


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