Peterloo and Honey

Dir Mike Leigh ★★★★★

The Guardian Weekly - - Contents - Peter Brad­shaw

Mike Leigh brings an over­whelm­ing sim­plic­ity and sever­ity to this his­tor­i­cal epic. There is force, grit and, above all, a sense of pur­pose; a sense that the story he has to tell needs to be heard right now.

On 16 Au­gust 1819, at what we would now call a pro-democ­racy demon­stra­tion in St Peter’s Field, Manch­ester, cav­alry and yeo­manry charged with sabres drawn into a crowd of 100,000 un­armed peo­ple. The troops killed 18 and in­jured hun­dreds more.

The gov­ern­ment was de­lighted with the re­sult, and not dis­pleased with the nick­name “Peterloo”, as it felt like a rerun of its vic­tory over Napoleon, the crea­ture of some­thing it con­tin­ued to fear: the French Rev­o­lu­tion. Peterloo was even­tu­ally the seed of re­form and gave rise to the Manch­ester Guardian.

Leigh cre­ates a huge, crowded can­vas. No sin­gle story or char­ac­ter pre­dom­i­nates, not even the con­ceited or­a­tor and ag­i­ta­tor Henry Hunt, coolly played by Rory Kin­n­ear. Max­ine Peake plays Nel­lie, the tough Manch­ester worker who is the mother to Joseph (David Moorst) a young sol­dier shown stum­bling around dazed at Water­loo in the open­ing scene. Karl John­son plays the can­tan­ker­ous and ar­ro­gant home sec­re­tary, Lord Sid­mouth; Robert Wil­fort is the prime min­is­ter, Lord Liver­pool, and Tim McIn­nerny brings a grisly black com­edy to the role of the bloated Prince Re­gent.

With this richly in­tel­li­gent, pas­sion­ate movie Mike Leigh has fought a bril­liant rear­guard ac­tion on his­tory’s po­lit­i­cal bat­tle­field.

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