In 1819, mounted troops charged, swords drawn, into a pro-democracy protest in northern England, killing over a dozen people and wounding hundreds in what became a landmark event in the struggle to win common people the right to vote.
There were, of course, no cameras to record it, but journalists at the clash at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester compared the devastation to the battlefield at Waterloo where Napoleon was defeated four years before, and dubbed it the Peterloo Massacre.
The story is retold by Mike Leigh, the British director who made the surprise move into historical drama with the painter biopic “Mr Turner” in 2014, but insists “Peterloo” is as relevant to today as the contemporary films that made his name.
“We’re in a world of disintegration, in many ways, as far as proper democracy is concerned,” Leigh told Reuters in an interview at the Venice Film Festival.
“Democracy is an important and good thing, and we know from what’s happened in the UK and we know from what’s happened in the States that democracy can also lead us in the wrong direction.”
The film shows the build-up to the protest, as workers in Manchester’s cotton mills struggle with the falling wages and rising food prices that the landowners and industrialists who make up the ruling classes are only too happy to see continue.
Local activists persuade London-based gentleman radical Henry Hunt – a self-aggrandizing fop played by Rory Kinnear – to address the crowd, adding a north-south divide to a story already riven with countless layers of class differences.
Forced to stay in a humble home in Manchester, he barks over his shoulder to the lady of the house: “Mrs Jones, if you could bring me a light repast,” leaving the baffled woman to whisper to herself: “What’s that?”
In another scene, Hunt asks a servant girl to hold the paper he is writing on as he poses for a portrait painter. “Will I be in’t picture?” she nervously asks the artist.
“I don’t gratuitously put in humor or put jokes in,” Leigh said of his trademark use of comedy in often very dark subject matter. “Occasionally I might think perhaps on this occasion to take the joke out.”
“I find it difficult to look at people in the round without it being both comic and tragic – because life is.”
In a poignant reminder that we still live in the same world as the characters in the film, parents of a new baby note the infant will be 85 years in 1900.
“When we put that scene together – scripted it and shot it – it was about a week away from the birth of my first grandchild … and I was thinking about what will this world be like in 2100,” Leigh, 75, said.
“I wanted in some way to link then to now – to show that really it’s not that long ago. Actually 1819 is less than a century before my parents were born.”
Peterloo is one of 21 films competing for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival which will be awarded on Sept 8.