You’re not likely to recognize any of the actors in Mike Leigh’s fascinating, epic “Peterloo”; he’s assembled a cast of weathered, lived-in faces who lend a documentary realness to this story of working-class Manchester in the early 19th century. In its first scenes, a young man named Joseph (David Moorst) — a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo — makes his way home, dazed and stumbling. He’s welcomed by his family, who work in Manchester’s cotton mills, but his return changes little about their life; we blink and several years have gone by, with Joseph still wearing his threadbare military jacket (he clearly doesn’t own another) and life becoming increasingly difficult for the working poor.
“Peterloo” is constructed around a real-life event: the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which military forces on horseback attempted to shut down a peaceful assembly of tens of thousands of people who hoped to hear famed orator Henry Hunt speak about voting reform. But the assembly’s events — shocking and brutal and uncannily quiet in its aftermath — take up only a small part of the film; Leigh is more interested in what led to it, and in contrasting the lives of families like Joseph’s with that of the upper-class voices of the government and military.
“Times is too hard to lose hope — hope’s all we’ve got,” says Joseph’s resolute mother, Nellie (Maxine Peake), whose life in a cramped, dark home is made up of endless drudgery and weariness. Cut to a plummy-voiced bureaucrat who, from his comfortable chair, describes the masses as “ignorant souls, innocent babes.” The class divide is evident everywhere — even from Hunt himself (Rory Kinnear), who grandly accepts lodging at a middle-class journalist’s home and requests “a light repast.” “What’s tha’?” wonders the journalist’s wife.
Like Leigh’s previous films, many of them masterpieces (“Topsy-Turvy,” “Secrets and Lies,” “Mr. Turner”), “Peterloo” takes its time, giving us little by way of explanation and grounding but creating, in its bits and pieces, a vivid and coherent world. You watch, dreading the terrible event that looms ahead, and wishing the events of this film didn’t reverberate quite so closely today. “In 1900, she’ll be 85,” says Nellie, of her small granddaughter, quietly adding, “I hope it’s a better world for her.”
★★★½“Peterloo,” with Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Neil Bell, Philip Jackson, Vincent Franklin, David Moorst, Karl Johnson, Tim McInnerny. Written and directed by Mike Leigh. 153 minutes. Rated PG-13 for a sequence of violence and chaos. Opens April 19 at Meridian, Seattle 10.