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 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, we learn all we need to know 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) from the Battle of Waterloo who continues to wear his red uniform to his hometown's battle — dubbed Peterloo for its town-square setting of St. Peter's Field. There, in the film's stomach-turning climax, British cavalrymen set upon an unarmed crowd of 60,000, bloodying and, in some cases, killing men, women and children. The massacre, which occurred during a peaceful pro-democracy rally, turned into one of the most notorious episodes in British history.
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. Underpinning it all, Leigh's team of artists collectively puts many period films to shame with their unshowy but astonishingly detailed work, including the beautiful photography of Dick Pope and the just-so costumes of Jacqueline Durran.
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 also is richly realized, a remarkable achievement of dramatized history with the understanding that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Rated PG-13 for a sequence of violence and chaos. Two hours, 34 minutes.
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