The luckiest period films are sometimes remembered for how we feel like can reach out and touch them – its fabrics, its realized era details, the life given to figures we’ve known solely through the distance of history books. However, Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is one to by known by its odor, and in the best possible way. Here the typically idiosyncratically observed director gives us a massive textbook with the dust clouding off of it as he slams it in our laps, reeking of the kind of appealingly pungent book mold that immediately promises something austere and of a bygone time. But most importantly, it also instantly appears substantial.
The film details the mounting political tensions among the citizens of Manchester leading up to the titular massacre. Rory Kinnear leads a massive ensemble as the radical speaker Henry Hunt, a figure who ultimately led the crowd on the fateful day. But the build-up unfolds in usual Leigh fashion of dense characterization and even denser historical contextualization. Leigh serves us all levels leading up to and briefly falling out from the catastrophe, from the peasantry to the aristocracy.
The usual smorgasbord of Leigh’s characters is sometimes confusing here regarding just how significant or related to one another everyone is, but that doesn’t mean that Leigh has gone scattershot. Its point of entry is just not on the human level; rather than the bone-deep character studies of Leigh’s contemporary films, Peterloo achieves a grander scale of understanding. Here the specificity of his sprawling host of characters serve as small cogs in a larger system as the film uses these small bites of life to make a big picture canvas.
While this all makes for an exciting, rigorously wordy period epic loaded with ideas, it also eschews the kind of boring mechanics that have stunted the genre of late. And yet what enervates the film beyond the academic is its palpable rage and the unobvious parallels it draws to current corruptions of government. All of this builds to one formidable film that, while blithely unaccommodating to those not well versed in history, feels defiant on several crucial levels.
Is Peterloo a bit too stuffy for its own good? Simply no, because its composure of form and rigidity of feeling provides the kind of period authenticity that only Leigh seems willing to provide these days. Its steady barrage of orations and untraceable characters are surely not for the passive viewer seeking more costume drama hand-holding, but the auteur achieves something surprising: a political event seen through and detached from its participants, history as a state of being, a past we’ve allowed ourselves to feel detached from brought into unambivalently current focus.