Mike Leigh’s new film documents the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, when cavalry charged a large crowd of protesters in Manchester, who had gathered to demand suffrage and watch Rory Kinnear wave a hat around.
As in his previous picture Mr Turner, Leigh takes his time and pays meticulous attention to detail, resulting in another well-crafted but rather slow historical piece; the kind that’s perfect for old people, in that you can fall asleep and wake up without having missed anything. Starting the drama weeks ahead of the titular event, Leigh takes a lengthy run-up and stages speeches and meetings for 2.5 hours, which is about an hour too long. That’s the thing about these Lefties: always afraid to make cuts.
In resolutely following a broad ensemble of characters to the fateful site at St Peter’s Field, Leigh demonstrates great care and conviction, even if the villainous local magistrates border on camp; two of them played by The Thick of It alumni Vincent Franklin and Martin Savage. There are also fine performances from Maxine Peake, Karl Johnson and Tim McInnerny as the Prince Regent, fulfilling an alternate realisation of Blackadder the Third.
By sidestepping the movie conventions that characterised Suffragette, Leigh produces a more natural and personal work. For him this is a historic chapter in the birth of the labour movement, as well as a warning from history about the life-threatening consequences of constitutional stubbornness; the sort that guarantees frequent school shootings in modern-day America. Authentic yet ambling, Peterloo reminds us of the people who died for the rights we enjoy today, and that the march towards progress is very slow indeed.