On Aug. 16, 1819, a crowd numbering between 60,000 and 80,000 gathered in the English city of Manchester in support of electoral reform. Cavalry charged the protesters, killing between 10 and 20 people and injuring perhaps as many as 700. The gathering was on a site known as St. Peter’s Field.
Journalists combined the name of the location with that of Britain’s great military victory of four years before, Waterloo. An awful event acquired an indelible name: Peterloo. It’s also the title of Mike Leigh’s latest movie, an account of events leading to Peterloo, culminating in a depiction of the massacre.
In the ’80s and ’90s Leigh carved out a small but fierce filmmaking niche. He made searing, intimate dramas that were like magic spells, or curses, hurled at a society transformed by the Voldemort of 10 Downing St., Margaret Thatcher. They included “High Hopes” (1988), “Life Is Sweet” (1990), the astounding “Naked” (1993), “Secrets & Lies” (1996). Leigh developed his scripts with cast members during a long period of intense rehearsals. The resulting films were like John Cassavetes movies, only far more polished and far less self-congratulatory, not that self-congratulation was altogether absent.
Leigh would seem ill suited to a period piece like “Peterloo,” except that what may be his two best movies are set in the 19th century: “Topsy-Turvy” (1999), about Gilbert and Sullivan (yes, Gilbert and Sullivan), and “Mr. Turner” (2014), about the painter J.W.M. Turner.
Those two movies focused on individuals. “Peterloo” is about a society, bottom and top both. Very much a man of the left, Leigh has made a subversive epic: part David Lean-style sweep (the movie feels every bit as long as its 154-minute length), part muscular polemic. Leigh does not hesitate to flex those muscles. The bad guys here aren’t just bad. They’re so broadly villainous you keep expecting them to twirl their mustaches, Snidely Whiplash-style, despite the fact that they don’t have any mustaches.
The good guys are the workers and activists seeking parliamentary reform. The event that precipitated Peterloo was an address by a radical leader, Henry “Orator” Hunt. Rory Kinnear plays him with a nicely balanced blend of rectitude and bluster.
An unfortunate aspect of “Peterloo” — surely unintentional, or is it to emphasize the idea of collectivity? — is how the working-class characters tend to blur or be identified only by superficial traits. The film opens at Waterloo, with a young bugler, Joseph (David Moorst). Returning to Manchester, he rejoins his family (Maxine Peake and Pearce Quigley play his parents). For the rest of the movie, he wears his scarlet military tunic. Or there’s the Manchester radical leader who’s invariably seen in reaction shots at meetings and speeches offering a half-wit grin that would be comical if it weren’t mildly alarming. It’s not as alarming as the fact that the aristos and reactionaries are individuated as the workers are not.
Leigh is as uninterested in narrative drive as he is in nuanced characterization. A sympathetic viewer might describe his approach as Brechtian and challenging. Those are euphemisms for didactic and slack. Dialogue explaining what the Corn Laws are or the meaning of habeas corpus is presumably not the product of long periods of intense rehearsal. All too many scenes consist of oratory (Orator Hunt is the least of it) and political debates interrupted by cries of “Aye!,” “Hear, hear!,” and “Well said, sir!”
It’s telling that the two most vivid scenes are wordless. They involve the interior of a Manchester textile mill. In the first, the looms clack away furiously, the noise far outdoing that of the cannon fire at Waterloo — with the plight of the workers protractedly dire beyond what Joseph had to endure on the battlefield. In the second, the looms are stilled. The workers have abandoned their work stations for the protest. Those scenes, and the juxtaposition of them in the viewer’s mind, have an eloquence nothing else in “Peterloo” approaches.
The best thing about the movie is its look. The great Dick Pope, Leigh’s go-to cinematographer, returns to the 19th century he so masterfully re-created in “Mr. Turner,” earning an Oscar nomination. The colors in “Peterloo” are rich but not at all sumptuous. They look lived in. The moviemaking line between beauty that’s absorbing and beauty that’s distracting is thread-thin. Pope, who also served as chief camera operator, makes sure that that thread never breaks.
Written and directed by Mike Leigh. Starring Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, David Moorst, Pearce Quigley. At Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner. 154 minutes. PG-13 (scenes of violence and chaos).