Review: Mike Leigh Peterloo film marking 200th anniversary of massacre lacks direction

  • Mike Leigh's film about the Peterloo massacre is now showing in cinemas
  • The massacre occured when the military charged peaceful protest in Manchester, injuring hundreds and killing 15
  • Next summer marks the 200th anniversary of the event

Ye are many, they are few

This the famous and often-quoted final line of Percy Bysse Shelly’s Masque of Anarchy, a poem written about the Peterloo massacre. You’ll find the words printed across Manchester in various media, I first encountered them on the wall of a car park in Salford.

The Massacre is a defining moment in our city’s history, showing the stark differences between the industrial working class and the authorities who refused to understand them.

In the aftermath of the massacre, change was not viscerally obvious, but it did influence the launch of the Manchester Guardian, now just the Guardian, as a newspaper to channel opinion and criticise the government without fear of opression and hastened the Great Reform act thirteen years later that led to greater suffrage and more workers’ rights.

It also heralded Manchester as a birthplace of rebellion and new ways of thinking. The suffragette movement started in Manchester, as well as modern vegetarianism – the massacre gave the city its political identity.

Movie poster for Peterloo
Movie poster for Peterloo

So why was none of this mentioned in Mike Leigh’s 2018 film?

The film charts the events leading up to the Massacre, showing why it happened and it is, to the best of my knowledge, true to real life. However, from a storytelling point of view, the film ends rather suddenly without a great deal of closure.

The film also suffers from showing too many characters, with too many different ideas. Again, this is difficult to criticise as this is true to the reality of the situation, but it made the plot unwieldy and difficult to assess what exactly is happening at various points.

Meeting scene from Peterloo
Meeting scene from Peterloo

Despite all this, the film is compelling to watch – its marathon runtime of two and a half hours went by quickly. 

One final point I noticed, which may not bother others, is that the Manchester accents in the film are a bit strange. Obviously, I wasn’t around in 1819 to judge what people spoke like, but while some of the accents feel appropriate for rural Lancashire, some sound completely out of place – one guy, apparently from Middleton, speaks with a West Country accent.

The film is a bit of a disappointment, but it should not be judged too harshly on its missteps. If you want a good window into the 19th Century politics of the urban North West, this film is for you. If you want a cinematic period political thriller, maybe give it a miss. 6/10

Beginning of the Massacre scene from Peterloo
Maxine Peake (far left) in Peterloo