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