Peterloo: Mike Leigh’s Quasi-Masterpiece

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios.

*** (out of 4)

As its title suggests, Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is a film about the Peterloo Massacre. For those who aren’t familiar: after the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo, England fell on financial hard times. Angered by the socioeconomic inequality that industrialization had generated, some 80,000 working-class people gathered for a political rally at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester on August 16, 1819. Fearing a violent uprising, authorities ordered soldiers to forcibly disperse the crowd. In the ensuing chaos, 18 people were killed and hundreds more injured, and because of this, the overall event is now generally acknowledged as a “turning point” in modern English history.

As with all of Leigh’s films, Peterloo has many good things going for it. To start with the most obvious one, the film’s subject matter – industrialization-induced poverty, economic inequality, and 19th-century political turmoil – might remind you of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables (2012). But as anyone who’s seen Les Mis knows, Hooper turns his characters’ struggles into fodder for melodrama and sentimentality. Say what you want about Les Mis as a musical, but as a depiction of history, it’s definitely not well served by such sensationalism: its view of 19th-century France is one in which the grim, anti-populist realities of monarchy are buried under simplifying uplift.

In Peterloo, meanwhile, Leigh adopts an approach that’s the very opposite of melodrama. Throughout the film, he invariably uses long takes, a technique that lends the narrative a slow rhythm. Furthermore, the film is characterized by an almost total absence of music, as though Leigh wanted to avoid needless embellishment.

Ultimately, the implications of these various techniques prove quite telling. While Les Mis offers an unabashedly sentimental view of class relations, the cinematography and soundscape of Peterloo advance a far more somber, realistic outlook. Given that it wasn’t until 1918 that all working-class men got the right to vote – and working-class women had to wait until 1928 – the formal elements of Peterloo appropriately speak to the difficultness of the main characters’ struggle for rights, portraying said struggle as wearying, never-ending, and apparently fruitless.

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Its avoidance of melodrama aside, Peterloo also stands out for its implicit repudiation of historiographical orthodoxy. To see what I mean by this, you have to consider two particular aspects of the film. Throughout Peterloo’s 2.5-hour running time, the camera almost never moves. Moreover – I’ll leave it to an art historian to confirm this impression with more rigorous language – many of Leigh’s shots are uncannily reminiscent of the style of 18th– and 19th-century English paintings. At one point, when a group of workers gathers in the countryside for a rally, there’s a gorgeous long shot of the landscape that could have come straight from the canvas of John Constable.

When you watch Peterloo, these two aspects elicit two kinds of reactions. On the one hand, the camera’s stillness evokes emotional repression. Similarly to what it does in many of Yasujiro Ozu’s films, it suggests that there’s a lot of anger that the characters are unable to openly express, as though whatever frustration they do display were just the tip of the iceberg.

Meanwhile, the landscape shots evoke what I’m going to call a “traditional” view of English history. This is the top-down, “The British Empire was strong and mighty” understanding of English history that you can easily find in old-fashioned textbooks and art galleries. It’s a view, in other words, in which England is a beautiful country of dignified aristocrats like those in Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews – not an industrialized morass that’s afflicted by poverty, gaping inequality, and a backwards oligarchy.

In a way, Peterloo’s power derives from the way these two features play off one another. By using both landscape shots and a still camera – occasionally at the same time – Leigh is hinting that the former cannot fully express the emotions embodied in the latter. Put differently: the landscape shots’ “traditional” view of English history cannot fully account for all the pent-up anger and widespread frustration that the still camera alludes to. In this sense, Peterloo offers a historiographical critique, attacking the way conventional histories of England fail to account for the social, economic, and political turbulence of the 18th and 19th centuries.

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Unfortunately, what’s maddening about Peterloo is that it doesn’t follow through on this critique. Throughout the film, Leigh certainly does a good job of pointing out the flaws in traditional, top-down conceptions of English history. But in spite of this, Peterloo doesn’t provide a satisfying alternative to such conceptions of history. To put it another way, it expertly identifies problems, but it ultimately fails to fully resolve them.

I realize that everything I just said was probably unintelligible, so let me try to be more specific. At certain points in the film, Leigh decides to linger on random details that serve no real narrative purpose. For instance, towards the start of the film, we get a shot of a working-class woman who’s buying eggs at a marketplace. Later on, when a group of reformers gather to talk about politics in the offices of the Manchester Observer, a radical newspaper, the camera focuses not on the men but on a worker who’s running the printing presses just a few feet away from them.

In these moments, Leigh seems to be grasping at an “alternative” history. By pausing to observe the routine and behavior of ordinary workers, he is in a sense allowing us to see details of everyday life that top-down, traditional histories of England tend to omit. In the case of the printing-press worker, Leigh’s decision to linger is particularly notable: traditional histories would probably choose to focus on the reformers’ political discussions, but Leigh instead opts to draw our attention to the people who literally work in their shadow.

Frustratingly, however, most of Peterloo isn’t devoted to such observation of humdrum daily life. Instead, it primarily consists of shots and scenes in which individuals are shown delivering speeches. These speeches take many different forms: some are passionate orations delivered in taverns, others are eloquent disquisitions made in Parliament, and still others are rabble-rousing addresses made at rallies. But all of them are made in public, and they are invariably political in content and tone.

In the context of the overall film, these speech scenes are the cinematic equivalent of shooting oneself in the foot. While the aforementioned shots of the printing-press worker and egg-shopper depict everyday details that history books often ignore, these public, political speeches are the kind of rhetoric that you can more easily find in traditional archives and books. If the printing-press and egg-shopping scenes advance an alternative, “bottom up” view of history, then, these speech scenes ironically advance the exact opposite, a view of history that favors the contributions of prominent “influencers” over the nondescript.

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In the end, this tension between two differing “views” of history manifests itself best in Leigh’s depiction of the rally at St. Peter’s Field. On the one hand, this depiction frequently features shots of particular individuals – a Waterloo veteran who looks completely lost, a group of women who complain that they can’t hear the speaker, and so forth. At other times, however, the film falls back on shots of indistinguishable masses – that is to say, sweeping long shots of crowds, plus shots in which indistinguishable soldiers are shown attacking groups of indistinguishable men and women.

As mentioned, these two kinds of shots carry different implications. The shots of individuals are more in keeping with the previously discussed “alternative” view of history, namely a view that gives dignity to the lowly and underprivileged. By contrast, however, the mass shots revert to a traditional, “top-down” recounting of history, one in which the Peterloo Massacre would only merit a brief acknowledgement like “A lot of people were hurt at a protest in August 1819.” Naturally, this difference in outlook makes Peterloo’s conclusion feel rather uneven, but that unevenness is really only a symptom of the underlying contradictions in the film as a whole.

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Since its release, Peterloo has met with a fair amount of criticism, and in terms of its Rotten Tomatoes rating, it consequently ranks as Leigh’s least successful work. Frustratingly, however, many of the film’s critics have simply focused on the fact that the film can be boring. Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post, for instance, noted that the film “unfurls like a grandiose pageant, in which Leigh’s usual gifts…are sacrificed to long, windy speeches.” Similarly, Observer’s Oliver Jones opined that “The film is so lacking in dynamism that, if our current world weren’t such a bloody mess, there wouldn’t be much incentive to give it the time and attention the film demands.”

These critiques of Peterloo are reasonable, but they ultimately don’t fully capture what the film gets right and wrong. To his immense credit, Leigh does an excellent job of capturing the repressed anger of 19th-century England, and he offers a blistering takedown of “traditional” methods of viewing history. Yet instead of formulating a comprehensive alternative to these traditional methods, Leigh hypocritically adopts those same methods in many parts of the film, particularly in the sequences devoted to “long, windy speeches.” This is a film, in short, that tells us where it ought to be going – and then, for reasons that it never explains, ends up traveling in the exact opposite direction.

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios.


Peterloo (2018)

Starring: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, Neil Bell

Running Time: 154 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for a sequence of violence and chaos.”

Produced by: Georgina Lowe

Written and Directed by: Mike Leigh