“Peterloo” vividly portrays the political unrest in Manchester, England, in 1819. (Courtesy Simon Mein/Amazon Studios)

Mike Leigh tells story of British massacre in ‘Peterloo’

Human drama celebrates the organizing spirit of democracy

Filmmaker Mike Leigh revisits one of the bloodiest political gatherings in his nation’s history in “Peterloo.” The sprawling, very British, and beautifully human drama and celebration of the organizing spirit opens Friday at the Clay in The City.

On Aug. 16, 1819, cavalrymen charged into a crowd of more than 60,000 peaceful protesters who gathered on St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, England, to call for democratic reform. The government-sanctioned massacre, dubbed Peterloo (a la Waterloo) left about 15 people dead and hundreds wounded.

Leigh uses groups of characters to portray events leading to the massacre.

He follows a financially struggling family that includes factory worker Joshua (Pearce Quigley), pie-selling Nellie (Maxine Peake), and son Joseph (David Moorst), a war-traumatized soldier introduced in an opening Waterloo scene.

As the poor get poorer, members of Parliament pass legislation that benefits the wealthy.

A focal point on Leigh’s extensive canvas is the intensifying anger shared by radicals and fed-up townsfolk relating to the need for enhanced parliamentary representation and suffrage. To bring about change, citizens plan a meeting. Fiery orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), a vain but crowd-rousing reformist, agrees to speak.

Fearing that a British version of the French or American revolution will occur, Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson) spies on citizens and quashes liberties.

At St. Peter’s Field, the size of the crowd causes the paranoid magistrates to call in the cavalry.

Leigh’s impeccably researched and consistently busy 153-minute movie contains almost too many details to process. This, along with the absence of a central protagonist, makes the film a bumpier ride and less emotional experience than Leigh’s earlier large-scale period dramas (“Mr. Turner,” “Topsy-Turvy”).

But the film still contains satisfying doses of the director’s trademark emotional authenticity, affecting humanism and effective mix of realism and theatricality.

It’s a great period piece, with early-19th-century scenes ranging from royal decadence to marketplace bustle to meetings of the Manchester Female Reform Society.

The film relevantly demonstrates how the rich, powerful and clueless have continued to oppress life’s have-nots, a common Leigh theme.

It also celebrates political and community organizing vividly. Leigh conveys hope among the protesters, many women, as they march to the field on that fateful day.

The massacre, which receives considerable screen time, is a horrifying spectacle of carnage and shock.

The talky movie also illustrates the beauty and civility of words (the screenplay includes actual dialogue spoken by real-life characters 200 years ago), and how language reflects class. When Hunt tells a housemaid, “Bring me a light repast,” she wonders, “What’s that?”

Among the excellent cast, Johnson, portraying a home-security chief who never met a civil liberty he didn’t dislike, stands out.

REVIEW

Peterloo

Three stars

Starring: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, David Moorst, Karl Johnson

Written and directed by: Mike Leigh

Rated: PG-13

Running time: 2 hours, 33 minutes

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