The British filmmaker Mike Leigh always digs into the humanity of any situation, whether a contemporary family drama (like his masterpiece “Secrets and Lies”) or a historical drama, like “Mr. Turner,” his 2014 biography of the painter J.M.W. Turner — or his newest film, “Peterloo,” an epic about a forgotten tragedy in the people’s history.
It’s 1819, and the Industrial Revolution has made some people rich and other people more destitute and desperate. The recent war against Napoleon has also left soldiers begging for scraps, though Parliament has made sure the soldiers’ leader, the Duke of Wellington, is set for life with a gift of 750,000 pounds.
Another war hero, Gen. Sir John Byng (Alastair Mackenzie), is back from fighting alongside Wellington, and the home secretary, Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson), gives him a new assignment: Go north to Manchester and Lancastershire, and tamp down the insurrection brewing against the mill owners.
The magistrates are doing what they can, by sending the poor to jail or Australia for the most minor offenses — and sending spies into the pubs and common places where rabble-rousers give speeches urging workers to go on strike.
The culmination of this tension comes in St. Peter’s Field in Manchester on Aug. 18, 1819. Locals campaigning for voting rights, to ensure the working-class can vote for their representatives in the House of Commons, plan a peaceful rally, with the famed orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) on the hustings as the guest speaker. But the local yeomanry, a brutish constable (Victor McGuire), and the corrupt judges prodding Byng’s troops all lead to a massacre.
Leigh marshalls his actors like an army, and provides each with a role to play. He focuses on a typical Manchester family, striving to stay alive through poverty, with the matriarch, Nellie (Maxine Peake), cynical about the hopes for reform. On the other end of the economic spectrum, there’s the Prince Regent (Tim McInernney), foppishly fiddling with his fortune, until a potato thrown through his carriage window sets off a government panic.
Leigh presents too many characters to track, as he steadfastly refusing to dumb down the historical record. He bombards the audience with details, side characters, and small moments on the road to a major event. The narrative messiness becomes the point of “Peterloo,” showing how the sweep of history catches everyone, commoner or monarch, in the crush of progress.
Opened April 5 in select cities; opens Friday, April 26, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated PG-13 for a sequence of violence and chaos. Running time: 154 minutes.