“Peterloo” tells the real story of an 1819 massacre of working people peacefully demonstrating for their political rights in Manchester, England. (Amazon Studios)

“Peterloo” tells the real story of an 1819 massacre of working people peacefully demonstrating for their political rights in Manchester, England. (Amazon Studios)

Mike Leigh’s ‘Peterloo’ is about the strength of collective action

This stirring film, about a social-reform struggle in 1819 England, eschews cheap emotional tugs.

Mike Leigh’s “Peterloo” is already being written off as a flop. The movie probably won’t turn a profit for Amazon Studios, although I’m not sure why this is a problem — the $18 million production cost is probably what Jeff Bezos’ lawyers make in any given week. Especially lately.

I hope Amazon Studios can console themselves with the thought that they made a great film. Because “Peterloo” is a complex but amazing movie, one of Leigh’s best (in a career that includes the Oscar-winning “Secrets and Lies,” “Vera Drake” and “Happy-Go-Lucky”).

The title refers to a massacre in Manchester, England, in 1819. Thousands gathered in favor of fair parliamentary representation, whereupon the English cavalry stormed into the group, sabers flashing.

Leigh’s film slowly builds to this climax. It takes an unconventional approach: There is no main character, no hero in whom we become emotionally invested. Instead, the movie grazes across dozens of folks — some fictional, some historically accurate — as they hold meetings, debate in Parliament, argue over the dinner table.

This will be frustrating, unless you go with the flow. Leigh is making a film about collective effort, in which the actions of one person are not as important as the shared movement.

We do take note of a particular Manchester working-class family, especially a skeptical mother (Maxine Peake, “The Theory of Everything”) and her shell-shocked son (David Moorst), who’s recently returned from battle.

Leigh’s treatment of one historical character is typical of the way he complicates things. Henry Hunt (played by Rory Kinnear, a regular in the recent James Bond films) is a celebrated orator, the guest speaker at the Manchester gathering.

While his pro-reform politics are in the right place, Hunt is also depicted as vain and fussy. He knows his star status a little too well. And yet he’s a man of courage, as we see during the massacre.

Leigh is good at this: He never lets the downtrodden become merely saintly, and he always finds humor. For all his commitment to intimate truths and pressing social issues, he’s got a snarky streak.

“Peterloo” has been criticized for this. The film’s villains (notably England’s Prince Regent, played by the great Tim McInnerny) are hilarious caricatures of privilege, terrible fops who practically drool as they deliver the most appalling pronouncements about the poor.

Some critics have suggested this is an exaggerated depiction of politicians — nobody’s that big a monster. Uh-huh. Turn on cable news for five minutes and get back to me on that.

Don’t expect to feel the emotional tug that so many historical epics want to hook you with. Mike Leigh isn’t after that. He wants you to think.

What you will feel is that you’re right in the middle of things, thanks to Dick Pope’s razor-sharp digital cinematography. Perspective is everything here, including a moment when the famous orator is speechifying and suddenly we’re way back in the crowd with a family who can’t hear a bloody thing. There’s a touch of Monty Python at play that keeps this history lesson from going dry.

“Peterloo” (4 stars)

Terrific history lesson from director Mike Leigh, about the social-reform protests that culminated in the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819. The film has no single hero, because it’s all about the collective effort that spawned the protest movement — don’t look for the emotional hook, because Leigh isn’t after that. He wants you to think.

Rating: PG-13, for violence

Opening Friday: Meridian, Seattle 10

Talk to us

More in Life

This image provided by Higgins Design Studio shows an open Murphy bed. (Mentis Photography/Higgins Design Studio via AP)
Pandemic-era design solution from the past: the Murphy bed

The beds that emerge from a wall to instantly transform a living room into a bedroom date from more than a century ago.

R.J. Whitlow, co-owner of 5 Rights Brewery, has recently expanded to the neighboring shop, formerly Carr's Hardware. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
County craft breweries’ past lives: hardware store, jail

Most breweries in Snohomish County operate in spaces that formerly housed something far different — from boat builders to banks.

Red apples with leaves isolated over white background. Gala apple. Top view
Everything you never wanted to know about fruit tree pollination

If your trees are blooming and not setting fruit, the most likely culprit is poor pollination.

Cryptomeria japonica “Sekkan-sugi”
Great Plant Pick: Cryptomeria japonica “Sekkan-sugi”

If you love golden foliage, the golden Japanese cedar is for you. When planted against a dark green backdrop, it shines like a beacon.

Moving eyes add interest to an antique clock. This blinking-owl clock sold for $1,900 at a Morford's auction in 2021.
These antique clocks have shifty eyes that move with time

More modern moving-eye clocks include the Kit-Cat clock, a fixture in nurseries since 1932.

Heroes.jpg: Characters in the fantasy world in “She Kills Monsters” at Red Curtain Arts Center, running Jan. 28-Feb. 13, include (front row) Erin Smith as Lilith, Katelynn Carlson as Kaliope; (middle row) Marina Pierce as Tillius, Lucy Johnson as Agnes; (back row) Daniel Hanlon as Orcus.
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Dungeons & Dragons collides with reality in “She Kills Monsters” at Red Curtain Arts Center in Marysville.

Caption: Stay-at-home parents work up to 126 hours a week. Their labor is valuable even without a paycheck.
A mother’s time is not ‘free’ — and they put in 126-hour workweeks

If you were to pay a stay-at-home mom or dad for their time, it would cost nearly $200,000 a year.

Linda Miller Nicholson from Fall City, Washington, holds up rainbow pasta she just made in the commercial kitchen at her Fall City home, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021.  The rainbow wall behind her is in her backyard. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle TImes/TNS)
This King County woman’s rainbow pasta signals her values

Linda Miller Nicholson sculpts colorful noodles that reflect her personality and pro-LGBTQ+ pride.

CloZee performs during the second day of Summer Meltdown on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019 in Darrington, Wash. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
The psychedelic fest Summer Meltdown is back — and in Monroe

The music and camping event is on for July 28-31, with a new venue along the Skykomish River.

Most Read