PETERLOO, Amazon Studios’ historic epic from acclaimed British filmmaker Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, Naked) recreates the lead up through tragic climax of Manchester, England’s 1819 St. Peter’s Field demonstration and massacre. Conceived as a peaceful gathering to support needed U.K. socio-political reforms, its post-Waterloo designation “Peterloo” ensued after British military intervention, panic and chaos lead to the deaths and injuries of scores of innocent bystanders.
While Leigh has famously gone more close-up, contemporary and personal with gritty films focusing on the struggles of lower class Brits (his magnificent period bio-pic Mr. Turner is one notable exception), he goes much wider and elaborate in Peterloo but with yet another drama reflecting his signature humanistic, liberal/socialist leanings.
The story unfolds just a few years after the great British victory over Napoleon at Waterloo but with Britain’s oppressed lower classes, as depicted here in the mill town of Manchester, without food, money or rights. Yet, hope persists, as does and a will to action even as strong currents thwarting change and reform emanate from the royal family -- the famously feckless King George III and his indulgent, sybaritic prince regent son. Also empowering the conservative forces, embodied by Manchester’s harsh magistrates, is privileged upper class greed, indifference to mass suffering and a deep paranoia that the U.K. could fall victim to the Jacobin extremism of the recent French Revolution. But Manchester’s downtrodden lower class (whether working mills or fields) and its activists are determined reformists, especially with the arrival of charismatic progressive orator Henry Hunt (a terrific Rory Kinnear), a wealthy and articulate advocate to deliver the St. Peter’s Field “keynote.” But, as is the nature of history and man, stronger pernicious forces — both concrete and abstract — overtake noble intentions.
On his lavish cinematic canvas, Leigh integrates rich production design and large cast with a multitude of carefully-observed, finely detailed Dickensian characters who provide emotional and educational pay-offs deftly conveying the underlying themes of oppression, exploitation and indifference.
The film’s thread of early 19th century male toxicity — the violent, bullying, roguish, self-serving behavior that resonates today — provides yet another cautionary history lesson of why history stubbornly repeats itself.
Even when constrained by the small spaces of peasant quarters or interiors lit only by candlelight, the film is a visual achievement of beauty and authenticity.
Kinnear as the splashily dressed Peterloo orator tapped to speak for the masses delivers a riveting star turn that hopefully turns him into a more frequent big and small screen presence.
Some of those portraying Manchester’s ruling magistrates — the film’s harsh “heavies” who, like the prissy prince regent, symbolize the country’s unconscionable anti-reform element — are too over-the-top, recalling moustache stroking melodrama villains.