Peterloo (2019) by Mike Leigh
Review by Etan Weisfogel
Let’s start with the obvious: Peterloo is not your typical Mike Leigh film. It does not take an aficionado of the man’s work to realize this—any awareness of his general reputation for low-key, interpersonal dramas about working-class families will be enough to mark this political procedural about a massacre that occurred at a reformist rally in early 19th century Manchester as something of an anomaly. But the Leigh expert will also find ways in which the film departs from his m.o.; Leigh tends to structure his films around performances, and thus dramatic peaks tend to be performance peaks as well (think of Timothy Spall’s explosive deployment of the title line in Secrets & Lies, or the switch in Imelda Staunton’s demeanor that effectively splits Vera Drake into two parts). That is not entirely the case here, where the performances, though great and quintessential Leigh, feel in service of a larger historical project, and where the climax, an impressive recreation of the massacre, is more built in to the story than built out of a performance.
It remains to be seen whether the film is simply an outlier or rather the first sign of what might be termed “late-period Leigh.” Peterloo has all the markings of an archetypal late-period work, namely a purified, ascetic style that feels like the product of someone who no longer feels a need to prove himself, and the elimination of conventions that would allow audiences to more easily accept the auteur’s eccentricities. In particular, I was reminded of Roberto Rossellini, who made a similar move late in his career from neorealist portraits of his contemporary moment to a historical mode that was often accused, just as Peterloo has been, of a certain dryness and didacticism. Whatever the case may be, it can at least be said that Peterloo, in its deviancy, presents a fascinating clarification and distillation of the Leigh aesthetic, especially with regards to his interest in history and verisimilitude.
Contrary to how he’s often described, I don’t think of Mike Leigh as a particularly realistic director, but I do think he has a unique relationship to reality as such. His well-documented working methods would certainly suggest that a particular kind of realism is important to him—he collaborates and workshops his films with his actors, who do extensive research on everything that comprises their characters’ lives, for months before he starts shooting. But unlike, say, Maurice Pialat, whose own working methods were similar to Leigh’s, one does not get the sense that Leigh utilizes improvisation because he distrusts drama or fiction; indeed, his films often feel highly dramatic. Instead he wants to let reality take him as far as it can, to create as plausible and authentic a milieu as possible, before he allows his actors to create drama out of it.
One sees that tendency at play in Peterloo’s careful recreation of early 19th century England. It’s not unusual for a period piece to use historical accuracy as something of a selling-point, though few go deeper than that by providing a reason why said accuracy is a necessary part of the film’s perspective on the world and history in general. Here, Leigh’s pre-production process allows for a historical accuracy that goes beyond superficial attention to period detail and gives viewers a real sense of how these people relate to their environment. A fairly extended shot of the cotton mill where various members of the film’s central family work, for example, feels so much more meaningful than a mere display of the production designer’s talents, as though Leigh is paying homage to a space that would have defined many working class lives in the region.
Peterloo’s main triumph, then, is a sociological and historical one as much as it is emotional or affective. I have seen very few fiction films that provide as comprehensive a mapping of the social relations of a single community as this film does; indeed, its closest equivalent may be the work of non-fiction filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. Leigh is presenting a view of Manchester through its institutions, and, like Wiseman often does, builds the film around a series of meetings formally structured by institutional logic. This allows Leigh to do two things. First, like Wiseman, he is able to invalidate critiques leveled at the supposed authenticity of his work (he has been accused in some cinephilic circles of a kind of faux-realism) by placing his characters largely within a context where people are already performing or acting unnaturally; his occasional tendency to allow speechifying is thus given plausible context. Second, by looking at political gatherings occurring across various social strata, he is able to give a full view of the superstructure that produced the Peterloo massacre.
Though its focus is on radical reformists within Manchester’s working class, the film extends its scope to the city’s magistrates, the local militia, the national army, the British cabinet, the Home Secretary, and, at the top of the film’s totem pole, England’s Prince Regent. Further, the reform movement itself is shown to be classed. One can see this most clearly in the character of Henry Hunt, the famous orator who will be the central speaker at the rally at St. Peter’s Field. Despite his progressive politics, he is a wealthy landowner from London who seems to look down upon the residents of Manchester, and consistently disregards the opinions of local organizers much more familiar with the city than he is. When one such organizer expresses concerns that violence could break out at the rally if the crowd is unarmed, Hunt suggests that his mere presence will act to keep the peace, clearly more concerned with maintaining a respectable reputation than with the well-being of the people.
However, these class dynamics are subtly present within the movement even before Hunt’s arrival in Manchester. One of the best scenes in the film involves the first meeting of the Manchester Female Reform Society, where President Mary Fildes begins to give a lofty and impassioned speech similar to many we’ve heard from men so far in the film, before she is interrupted by a woman in the crowd who complains that she cannot understand what’s being said. Instead of hearing her concerns and making her rhetoric more accessible, Fildes and the meeting’s organizers essentially tell her to sit down and shut up, suggesting how even marginalized groups can, in attempting to organize themselves, reproduce the same power structures that oppress them, placing institutional formality ahead of a genuine attempt to communicate with the working classes they are trying to uplift.
Thus, in stark opposition to claims that the film is mere agitprop against the rich and powerful, Peterloo presents an incredibly nuanced analysis of the various power dynamics that both directly and indirectly allowed the massacre to occur. At every turn, we get a sense of how each character’s authority is part of a larger system of authority in which everyone is subjugated; the Prince Regent, the only character who need not answer to anyone else, seems completely unaware of what’s happening, while his father the King has gone insane. In other words, there is no one fully in control of the strings here. This is not to say that the film avoids placing blame on those in power who sanctioned the killing of innocent civilians, but rather that the massacre cannot be easily dismissed as the result of bad people in power who can simply be replaced by more benevolent rulers. More than any individual, it is the system of power itself that is implicated in the tragedy of the film’s climax.
But Leigh, ever the humanist, is sure never to lose sight of the very human stakes at the heart of his systemic critique. It’s there in the opening shot, a slow dolly into army bugler Joseph, desperately trying to maintain the appearance of a civilized military force as bodies drop dead around him at the battle of Waterloo (David Moorst, playing Joseph, gives a risky performance, eccentric and highly mannered, but it works, partially because Leigh doesn’t feel a need to confirm whether his quirks are caused by PTSD or were already present prior to the war). It’s there in the simple but beautiful time jump (the two eras bridged, in a gesture reminiscent of Leigh’s compatriot Terence Davies, by a song) that shows how economic depression has affected Joseph’s family since his return from the war. It’s there in the massacre at St. Peter’s Field, where the trivial argument of a married couple is silenced as the husband is arbitrarily stabbed by a soldier, and the wife takes hold of him in his final moments. And it’s there in the final sequence, a funeral for a soldier who survived Waterloo only to perish at Peterloo.