“Peterloo” is a paradox.
Historical and contemporary, epic and intimate, political and personal, it is both unlike anything writer-director Mike Leigh has done before and the grand culmination of his career.
Edging into David Lean territory in terms of its ambition and its two hour and 33-minute running time, “Peterloo” is equal parts rewarding and demanding, and the gradual way it unfolds allows its cumulative heartbreaking power to take us by surprise.
As his seven Oscar nominations (five for writing, two for directing) for films like “Secrets and Lies” and “Vera Drake” attest, the uncompromising Leigh is the odds-on candidate for top British filmmaker of his generation.
But though Leigh’s reputation comes from his unique, organic way of working with actors, a system resulting in works that redefined the possibilities for realistic emotion on screen, even the most personal of his narratives has had a political subtext.
And though “Peterloo,” based as it is on an infamous bloody event in British history, may be his most overtly political film, it wouldn’t have the wrenching effect it does if Leigh had not paid close attention to the personal and had not used his particular gifts to create historical characters who come to unmistakable life under his touch.
Though its 200th anniversary is coming up in a few months, what is known to history as the Peterloo Massacre is almost unknown in this country — and apparently not as much as it might be in Britain.
In effect a 19th-century police riot in a place called St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, it saw a huge throng of 60,000–100,000 peaceful demonstrators attacked by a volunteer mounted militia as well as regular troops, all with sabers drawn.
The result — an estimated 18 killed and more than 600 wounded — has been called the worst violence ever to occur at a political meeting in Britain.
Leigh’s films have been historical before, but they’ve mostly involved venturesome artistic types like Gilbert and Sullivan (“Topsy-Turvy”) and the painter J.M.W. Turner (“Mr. Turner”).
And none has started with anything as dramatic as a moment from the Battle of Waterloo, an epochal event of the type you would’ve sworn the intimacy-focused Leigh would never get anywhere near.
Given that its focus is on showing all sides of a moment in history, “Peterloo” doesn’t follow a single protagonist or use actors we’ve seen a lot of before.
Rather Leigh — working with frequent collaborators including cinematographer Dick Pope, editor Jon Gregory, production designer Suzie Davies and costume designer Jacqueline Durran — introduces us to members of intersecting groups, allowing us to eavesdrop on real and vivid moments.
In the fog of war at Waterloo, we meet the British bugler Joseph (David Moorst), a dazed and confused victim of PTSD before it had a name.
Joseph painstakingly makes his way on foot to his home in Manchester in the north of England, where most of his family works at the huge, deafening cotton mills that are changing the face of society in a way that Karl Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels would detail a few years later.
In a contrast that plays more subtly on screen than in print, we see Joseph’s mother Nellie (Maxine Peake) labor intensively on pies she sells for a penny each just a few scenes after we’ve heard the British Parliament pass without debate a motion giving Waterloo’s victor, the Duke of Wellington, a staggering thank-you gift of 750,000 pounds.
Life in early 19th-century Britain is weighted heavily in favor of the haves, but, with the class violence of the French Revolution a vivid and recent memory, the establishment is worried enough to put Waterloo veteran Gen. Sir John Byng (Alastair Mackenzie) in charge of keeping things in the north under control.
By any reasonable standard Britain’s poor, especially in the north, had a lot to complain about, including — as we see examples of — an arbitrary judicial system that had people deported to Australia or even executed for minor offenses against property.
And then there was the matter of legislative reform. Universal suffrage was little more than a dream and, large as it was, the relative newness of Manchester as a city meant that it had not a single seat in Parliament.
Though there were radicals in the north, including the pumped-up Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell), one of the points “Peterloo” makes is that class and other distinctions existed between radicals and incrementalists like Henry “Orator” Hunt (Rory Kinnear), a landowner who is not impressed by the lower classes.
While the protesters’ “one man, one vote” demands sound quite modest, one of the implied points of “Peterloo” is just how difficult the fight was to achieve a right that large chunks of the population don’t take advantage of today.
It is the incrementalists who are in charge in Manchester, and they invite Hunt to speak at a massive rally at St. Peter’s Fields outside of town where attendees are instructed to bring “no other weapon but that of a self-approving conscience.”
The huge crowds who show up in their proverbial Sunday best are terribly moving in their earnest, soon to be shattered hopefulness. They deserve so much better than they got, and we watch in shock as events unfold. Difficult to experience though its finale may be, “Peterloo” very much gives off the sense that watching is essential. This fight for democracy is our story too, and the end has yet to be written.
Rated: PG-13 for a sequence of violence and chaos
Running time: 2 hours, 33 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles