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PETERLOO: HISTORY IN THE MAKING

Mike Leigh is one of my favorite filmmakers, in part because you never know what to expect from him. He’s given us slices of life (Life is Sweet, Secrets & Lies), character studies (Another Year, Happy-go-Lucky), a lavish period piece about Gilbert & Sullivan (Topsy-Turvy) and a breathtaking portrait of a great British painter (Mr. Turner). Peterloo is something else altogether: a historical document of events leading up to a brutal massacre of townspeople in Manchester in 1819.

Knowing that outcome in advance removes any vestige of suspense. What we get instead is a meticulous re-creation of everyday life in the early 19th century. The focal point is one working-class family that struggles to get by, in spite of wage cutbacks at the local cotton mill and a shortage of food from nearby farms. These “have-nots” are contrasted with the “haves” who regard such workers as ungrateful rabble whose rumblings about voting rights are a matter of sedition. The ruling class has never been portrayed with greater vitriol.

There is much speechifying in the revolutionary movement. The men and women who take a stand against their oppressive government and the imbalanced scales of justice are in many cases based on real-life figures from the period. They were moved to great heights of rhetoric by their deep-seated feelings…and, in a few cases, ego gratification.

Leigh spent several years researching this picture and has drawn on records of the time for authenticity. This has paid off in a film where everyone on camera looks and sounds real. There is much to admire and respect here, as one would expect from someone as deliberate and detail-oriented as Leigh. As a dramatization of history it is impeccable and well worth seeing. Its lessons about class structure resonate roundly today. But Peterloo is a difficult film to cozy up to, especially when you know the fate of the central characters. It succeeds more as a historical treatise than as a piece of entertainment.

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