Apr 15, 2019

A splendid rendition about the 1819 massacre in Manchester.


Grade: A

Director: Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies)

Screenplay: Leigh

Cast: Rory Kinnear (The Imitation Game), Maxine Peake (The Theory of Everything)

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 2 hr 34 min.

By: John DeSando

“Rise like Lions after slumber in unvanquishable number— Shake your chains to earth like dew Which in sleep had fallen on you— Ye are many—they are few.” Shelley, from The Masque of Anarchy

No contemporary director depicts and loves the working class better than Mike Leigh: look at Secrets and Lies for the best example. Believing that not enough people know about the massacre in 1819 in Manchester, where the British army slaughtered 18 and wounded scores of commoners peacefully assembling for liberty and rights, Leigh filmed Peterloo, the popular name for the uprising.

With an ear for local locutions and pompous preening, Leigh alternates between the people and their monarchial rulers, showing the sincerity of the marchers and the fear of the magistrates, who wish for nothing more than a Waterloo to stem the French-revolution-like yearnings of the folk. When administrators order the soldiers to squash the gathering, it’s the beginning of responsible press reporting the malignity of entrenched rulers.

Leigh’s longtime cinematographer, Dick Pope, has exceptional shots of the laborers and their homes to rival the best work of Millet and Courbet. The framing arches and rolling fields provide Pope with contours and colors to complement the dignity and vitality of the people.

However, it’s Leigh’s unfailing ear for diction and eye for metaphor that distinguish him as a David Lean of the working class. Contrasting the magistrates clustered around drafting the warrants for the crowd and the almost lyrical happiness of the assembly not only sets up the worlds of sad and happy, but they also heighten the terror as the innocent are vanquished by the proud.

Out of this debacle came a strong press that began and never stopped evaluating the ruling class. All hail the emergence of the Manchester Guardian.

“Let a great Assembly be

Of the fearless and the free

On some spot of English ground

Where the plains stretch wide around.” Shelley

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at