A film by Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh does modern real life better than arguably any of his British director peers – his most acclaimed films have been contemporary social comedies such as High Hopes and Life Is Sweet. But he’s just as capable when he turns the clock back, as he proves with Peterloo, the heartbreaking story of a massacre in Manchester in 1819. Stricken by famine and unemployment, locals staged a peaceful pro-democracy rally at St Peter’s Field. Magistrates sent in an armed cavalry. Hundreds were injured and 15 killed, including children.

It’s a horrific and under-reported part of British history, and the knowledge of what is to come hangs over the film’s early scenes as Leigh systematically sets up the key characters. These include left-wing orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), magistrate Rev Etlhelson (Vincent Franklin), and mother Nellie (Maxine Peake), who can barely feed her children but is told the rally will be a lovely day out. All put in terrific performances and Peake’s small role feels like the heart of the film – a loving woman whose family is paying the price for a parliament that’s cruelly neglecting its people.

True to Mike Leigh form, no one is glamorized for the big screen. Skin is ruddy and characters’ teeth look as bad as one imagines they might have been. Leigh manages moments of his trademark humour, thanks to Hunt’s vanity, but this is a grim tale with a message that is deeply relevant to today.

– Anna Smith, Metro U.K.

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