Peterloo on C4

Saturday March 13th on C4 at 10 p.m.

So if you missed this title on release or you want to enjoy it again this very fine film is screening tonight on C4 (and will be available on All4 ). Quite a few reviewers did not really appreciate the film on its release. British film critics, with some exceptions like Derek Malcom, do not really engage with actual and detailed politics in dramas. Even when they admire Ken Loach they tend to prefer his dramas built round personal lives rather than those constructed around political movements. This would seem to be one reason why British cinema has never quite equaled the output  from the continent.

This is one of the finest films to be made in Britain in this new century and it is certainly one of the most interesting. It is flawed in some ways. This seems to have been due to the project being rushed in its final stages. Originally planned for the Centenary of the Peterloo Massacre in 2019 it came out a year early. This seems to have affected in particular the final sequences of the title which seem less developed, especially after the lengthy treatment of the causes and actual violence of this historic protest in Manchester.

It has been very well filmed by a talented craft team with excellent cinematography by Dick Pope and sharp editing by Dick Gregory. It has a very intelligent script from Mike Leigh.  Care has been taken to render accurate local dialects and the setting shave been well reconstructed . But what stands out is that the politics of the emerging working class are given full expression here; something not often seen and heard in British films though it is also found in the other fine study of C19th working class radicalism Comrades (Bill Douglas, 1986). The cast of proletarian characters and their middle class allies are generally very fine. And the opposing local functionaries and the rising bourgeoisie are convincing.

The major weakness is in the representation of the aristocracy and the dominant political figures. Other Mike Leigh films have presented upper and middle class characters close to caricature and the royal and authority figures here are not convincing. Nevertheless their preening narcissism and their  ruthless and violent defence of undeserved and unearned privileges is accurate. .

This is a film that combines documentary style recreation, powerful and emotional sequences with a compelling political representation. It is amazing that it has taken over a hundred years of British cinema till we have a film of such a major historic event. It should be noted that Peterloo is a motif in the earlier Fame is the Spur (the Boulting brothers 1945 adaptation of Howard Spring’s novel) which is also well worth viewing. I cannot think of much else  this coming Sunday evening to match this presentation. And Jacqueline Riding’s ‘ Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre’ (2018) is worth reading as well.

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