Opens: May 16
Duration: 154 minutes
Genre: Historical drama

Mike Leigh is a filmmaker with an instantly recognisable style that began with a series of brilliant BBC TV plays and moved to the international spotlight with a stream of strikingly original tragicomedies for the big screen.

Peterloo, Mike Leigh

Ever since 1999’s Topsy-Turvy, about the light opera maestros Gilbert and Sullivan, he has developed an occasional and no less personal strain of work based on real-life historical characters, and his latest project falls into this latter category. The climax, with its cast of hundreds, is the notorious 1819 “Peterloo” massacre, where British cavalrymen, freshly returned from defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, slaughtered peaceful pro-democracy protestors in Manchester’s St Peter’s Field, though most of the film concerns the myriad events leading up to this massacre.

You might call it Leigh’s Battleship Potemkin, in reference to Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 Russian silent classic that climaxed with a massacre on the steps of the city of Odessa. Although Leigh’s thumbprints are instantly recognisable as his, the film plays out on a scale far larger than anything he has previously tackled.

Leigh’s wide-ranging eye takes in the bitter class divisions in the Manchester of the era, painting vividly the daily struggles of the working class poor, the agitation of the justifiably angry and desperate, the harshness of the middle-class judges (this is when Britain was sending a steady stream of convicts to Australia) and the preening of the politicians. This is all painted in great richness and detail, with larger-than-life, Dickens-esque characters and cinematography that appears inspired at times by Vermeer. I admired it greatly.

What sadly prevents it from becoming the masterpiece it might have been though is that too much of its 154 minute running time is taken up with a series of public meetings that, judged individually, make a powerful mark with their impassioned speeches, but which together start to cohere into pointless repetition, and all to a rather monotonous rhythm.

There’s no question that the agitators here had right on their side, but one or two fewer of these scenes might have made the film more dramatically dynamic and a little less hectoring. For all that, however, Peterloo is an impressive and absorbing achievement that brings an important yet surprisingly forgotten event back into the mainstream consciousness.