The revered writer-director Mike Leigh is best known for his naturalistic portraits of contemporary British society, slices of working-class life that manage to be modest and monumental at the same time. Once or twice, with such films as “Topsy-Turvy,” about the composing duo Gilbert and Sullivan, and “Mr. Turner,” about the eponymous painter, Leigh has chosen to revisit the 19th century, with utterly glorious results.
“Peterloo,” about an 1819 massacre of working people peacefully demonstrating for their political rights, marks an exceedingly rare instance when Leigh’s powers of observation and propulsive storytelling fail him. This horrific chapter of English history — little known in the United States — possesses all of the components of Leigh’s best work, which has been informed by equal parts outrage on behalf of and deep respect and compassion for the poor and disenfranchised. But rather than a fine-tuned excavation, “Peterloo” unfurls like a grandiose pageant, in which Leigh’s usual gifts for illuminating human behavior at its most intimate and universal are sacrificed to expository set pieces and long, windy speeches.
So many speeches. Set a few years after the Napoleonic Wars, we’re treated to parliamentary speeches extolling the heroism of the Duke of Wellington, suggesting he be honored with a 750-pound reward. We hear mini-speeches about the “rampant insurrection” and “seditious activity” that is stirring the mill city of Manchester and its environs, where exploitative industrialists pay their workers a pittance, where bread is unaffordable due to punitive wheat taxes, and where pitiless magistrates sentence citizens to death, whipping or deportation to Australia for the unforgivable crime of being poor and powerless. And we hear the speeches of the ones fighting back, radicals and reformers who are whipping their dispossessed brethren into a righteous fury of resistance.
The most gifted orator in this noble endeavor is Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), who agrees to come to Manchester to speak at an outdoor venue called St. Peter’s Field. Tens of thousands of working-class and feminist activists descend on the semi-enclosed space, where they’re met by soldiers and yeomanry being directed by the magistrates who watch the proceedings from a disdainful distance.
All of this unfolds with a dreadful sense of impending doom in “Peterloo,” which has been photographed with characteristic care and artfulness by the great Dick Pope. (Leigh’s collaboration with Pope is one of the enduring visual pleasures of present-day cinema.) Filmed almost entirely on a sound stage, the film has a handsome, composed quality that lends the story an attractive stateliness but also seems to keep it at arm’s length. A subplot involving a traumatized young war veteran named Joe (David Moorst) feels opportunistic and shoehorned-in, although Rachel Finnegan delivers a scene-stealing turn as the boy’s skeptical, astringently funny mother. But most of “Peterloo” has to do with men fulminating, whether it’s the obese, heavily rouged Prince Regent tut-tutting about the unruly proles up north or Hunt and his acolytes outdoing each other in empurpling their declamatory prose.
The end result is a movie that feels oddly detached, especially considering the raw intimacy of Leigh’s previous films. Still, “Peterloo” chimes with distressingly familiar echoes of today, from an early example of “fake news” to the depredations of inhumane wealth inequality and militarized law enforcement. “Peterloo” might be a page from the past, but it’s from a book that we seem still to be writing — over and over again.
PG-13. At Angelika Film Center Mosaic and Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains scenes of violence and chaos. 152 minutes. This film is distributed by Amazon Studios. Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.