In his historical films (such as Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake, and now Peterloo), Mike Leigh approaches past eras much like he considers individual lives in his contemporary narratives: by observing a variety of idiosyncrasies until complex wholes emerge. This panoramic look at Manchester in 1819 benefits immensely from Leigh’s curiosity about what it might have been like to have lived then. For the first half-hour or so, the director eschews conventional storytelling and just amasses fascinating period details about everything from justice to gender roles to cooking; by the time he introduces the central conflict—between the movement for universal male suffrage and opposing forces in the British government—you feel like you’re part of the society that’s undergoing it. Leigh valorizes numerous people within the movement and has a grand time satirizing the conservative politicians who want it squashed (his characterization here is almost Dickensian); he also succeeds in the difficult task of making antiquated political rhetoric sound rousing. The film looks fantastic, as Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope advance a painterly aesthetic even richer than the one they created in Mr. Turner.