★★★★ OUT 2 novem­ber CERT 12A / 154 mins

Empire (UK) - - ON. SCREEN - An­drew Lowry

di­rec­tor Mike Leigh cast Max­ine Peake, Rory Kin­n­ear, Pearce Quigley, David Moorst, Karl John­son

Plot Manch­ester, 1819: a pe­riod of famine after the Napoleonic Wars leads to in­creas­ing rad­i­cal­ism among work­ing peo­ple. Their de­mands for re­form hor­rify the au­thor­i­ties, lead­ing to the vi­o­lent sup­pres­sion of a ma­jor demon­stra­tion at St Peter’s Field.

Mike Leigh has — to his credit — spo­ken about how this film is, among other things, in­tended as a cor­rec­tive to the Bri­tish ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. Ven­ture onto so­cial me­dia, and this coun­try seems rid­dled with peo­ple who could speak at length about ob­scure cor­ners of amer­i­can pol­i­tics but are at a loss on the re­peal of the Corn Laws, the Chartists or, yes, the Peter­loo mas­sacre — a cru­cial mo­ment in the de­vel­op­ment of Bri­tish democ­racy that’d likely stump plenty of peo­ple who’d con­sider them­selves pretty switched on.

This makes this drama­ti­sa­tion of the build-up to and blood­bath on that ter­ri­ble day easy to ad­mire, but it’s not so easy to warm to. Com­par­isons with Leigh’s peer ken Loach are in­evitable, but Loach’s flair for mak­ing pol­i­tics com­pelling — think the spiky de­bate scene in Land And Free­dom — makes the scenes of speechi­fy­ing here seem rel­a­tively staid. That said, the var­i­ous strains of po­lit­i­cal thought prior to the killings — in­clud­ing calls for vi­o­lent in­sur­rec­tion, com­plete with mil­i­tary-style drills — get their due. and if you’re into guys in hats yelling at other guys in hats, this is the film for you.

For­tu­nately, Leigh’s abil­ity to glean per­for­mances that don’t look like per­for­mances is in full ef­fect. Rory kin­n­ear and Max­ine Peake stand out as re­spec­tively a proto-hampstead lib­eral and prag­matic housewife strug­gling to put bread on the table, but in truth, there’s not a rum turn in the cast of thou­sands.

This cast of thou­sands does mean there’s a lack of fo­cus, though. No­body’s ask­ing for a hero’s jour­ney with this ma­te­rial, but char­ac­ters do wan­der in and out, and there are so many in the var­i­ous strata that there’s no time for most of them to have any­thing to them be­yond the 1810s ver­sion of a Linkedin pro­file. Leigh seems to be go­ing for a Peter Watkins, quasi-doc­u­men­tary, flaunt-the-re­search ap­proach — but even at 154 min­utes, there’s just not enough time for any­body to feel bed­ded in. it’s tempt­ing to wish Net­flix had opened up its in­fi­nite wal­let to give Leigh the chance to make a minis­eries where in­di­vid­u­als had the chance to breathe.

But then the the­atri­cal ex­pe­ri­ence and the added in­ten­sity it brings would be lost. and we are still deal­ing with a gifted film­maker here — one who’s tak­ing on a ma­jor sub­ject. The sheer anger Leigh feels burns through the screen, its power ul­ti­mately over­whelm­ing any flaws you may have pre­vi­ously no­ticed. The cli­mac­tic mas­sacre’s de­scent from po­lit­i­cal rally to street bat­tle is metic­u­lous and gutwrench­ing. avoid­ing Paul green­grassstyle shaky-cam­era chaos, Leigh foren­si­cally shows how com­mand struc­tures and the choices of in­di­vid­u­als on the ground af­fects the body count. it’s a truly as­ton­ish­ing se­quence that won’t be for­got­ten soon.

Ver­dict there are con­tem­po­rary res­o­nances for those who want them, but Peter­loo suc­ceeds on be­ing an im­pact­ful recre­ation of a time and its in­jus­tices.

Bri­tish army con­script Joseph (Peter Moorst) is left bat­tle-scarred.

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