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Mike Leigh’s unsparing, moving retelling of a bloody massacre is currently in theaters.

Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Metacritic score: 68

Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky) returns with a film about the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, in which the British cavalry charged into a large crowd of civilians in Manchester who had gathered to call for parliamentary representation reform. But of course, the violence isn’t the whole story — for things to get to that point, many people had to talk, plan, and voice their resistance to the government. And that’s largely what Peterloo chooses to focus on.

Leigh’s working methods, which emphasize extensive character development in concert with his actors, promise that this will be anything but a conventional historical film. Peterloo is filled with memorable characters, who spend much of its runtime discussing what to do, how to do it, and whether reform is desirable or even possible. And the purpose of telling this story isn’t just historical curiosity; it’s clear that Leigh has something to say about modern politics, and about the plight of populism 200 years after the massacre.

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