England, 1819. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the people of North England are now suffering under repressive laws and worsening social conditions. However, a grassroots movement seeking suffrage is beginning to take hold and is set to reach a head with a massive public demonstration involving 60,000 people.
Mike Leigh's form and mark as a director has been that of realism. His kitchen-sink dramas with the likes of 'High Hopes' and 'All or Nothing' are evidence of Leigh's innate ability to understand and magnify the concerns, fears and warmth of everyday life - often against a backdrop of uncaring higher powers and government. In taking on such a historical moment as the Peterloo Massacre, Leigh hasn't lost any of his focus on what makes his work so captivating. Quite the opposite, in fact, as casting a working class family as the audience's way into the heady politics of the era works perfectly.
The ever-reliable Maxine Peake plays the hardened mother Nellie, whose son Joseph returns from the Napoleonic Wars and introduces us to Manchester and its people. From there, the cast spreads out to include Philip Jackson, John-Paul Hurley, as well as Karl Johnson playing Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, and Alastair Mackenzie as General Sir John Byng, who played a key role in the Peterloo Massacre. Each of the actors are able to grapple with the dense, period-specific dialogue easily, but what makes it so much more is how the film structures the events and timeline so rigidly.
We can see every step of the way to where it's leading, just how callous and how brutal the response was, both the moderating and extremist views held within the pro-democracy movements, and the harrowing culmination of it all. For a director who made his name in down-to-earth, well-worn dramas, Leigh is able to craft a wide angle of the massacre - which makes up much of the third act - and capture the chaos and horror of it as well as any other blockbuster director.
If there's a complaint to be made about 'Peterloo', it's that there is a certain stiffness in how dutiful it is to the facts. It diverts attention away from what could make for a fascinating character study, into ensuring that the audience understands the context of certain political movements in the era. That said, had this been in the hands of another director, you could be damned sure it wouldn't be half as thorough - or half as compelling.