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(2019) *** 1/2 Pg-13
154 min. Amazon Studios. Director: Mike Leigh. Cast: Rory Kinnear, Neil Bell, David Moorst.

/content/films/5155/1.jpgWith every passing year, cinema audiences become more and more accustomed to films being easy to consume, not only by their ready availability but by their aesthetic homogeneity and easily digested content. Seven-time Oscar nominee Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy) makes no concession to the passive viewer with his new historical film Peterloo. Instead, he bustles his audience into a time machine and transplants them to a time and place—1819 England—for full immersion into the physical and social landscape where a politically charged tragedy played out.

Leigh’s subject here, what history remembers as the Peterloo Massacre, pit the pro-democracy working class against an elitist government. The film’s early passages establish a hardscrabble existence for those who aren’t landowners and lack the power of the polls to protect their own interests. Lacking suffrage, languishing under policies like a bread tax (a.k.a. the Corn Laws), and subject to draconian “justice” for petty crimes, the underclass in Manchester, England begins to agitate. Leigh’s screenplay takes us back and forth from government officials (in offices, in Parliament, in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms) and a citizenry (in their cramped dwellings, street stalls, and taverns) that chooses to organize, albeit apprehensively in the face of powerful opposition.

With his appropriately decentralized narrative, Leigh gives us the lay of the land, rigorously guiding his actors through a combination of well-researched oratorical and written rhetoric of the day and the director’s practiced use of improvisation. The results can feel like a living textbook, heavily stentorian and at times long-winded and repetitive, but this is the stuff of political debate, after all, and the actors’ thorough commitment to the specificity of early 19th Century discourse gives the history a dimensionality that belies the lack of conventional character depth.

Through their public words and actions more so than their private lives, we learn all we need to know, in this context, of men like Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear)—the celebrity radical known in his day as “the Orator”—and Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell), the local activist who bristles at Hunt’s superior manner. Leigh also poignantly—and ironically—frames the film with the experience of a young Mancunian veteran (David Moorst) of the Battle of Waterloo who continues to wear his red uniform through to his hometown’s battle, dubbed Peterloo for its town-square setting of St. Peter’s Field. There, in the film’s stomach-turningly inevitable climax, British cavalrymen set upon an unarmed crowd of 60,000, bloodying and, in some cases, killing men, women, and children.

The personality clashes within the opposing groups add texture to the otherwise dryly recounted economic realities, rabble-rousing and dissent-squelching speeches, and political skullduggery. Leigh wisely allows for the dissent within both camps as to courses of action and distinctions within the beliefs that motivate them, lest the political clash be too plain. Underpinning it all, Leigh’s team of artists collectively put many a period film to shame with their unshowy but astonishingly detailed work: the beautifully painterly photography of Dick Pope, the just-so costumes of Jacqueline Durran, the methodical production design of Suzie Davies and art direction of Jane Brodie and Dan Taylor, and the thoughtfully cluttered set decoration of Charlotte Dirickx.

The thoroughly effective performances should not be underestimated due to their deliberate theatricality (an evocation of period), and Leigh again proves an extraordinarily adept purveyor of period drama despite having made his career as a chronicler of contemporary England. If Peterloo is somewhat medicinal, with no spoonfuls of sugar in sight, it is also richly realized, a remarkable achievement of dramatized history with the understanding that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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