Mike Leigh’s Historical Epic is Long On Speeches, Short on Connections

Directed By Michael Leigh / 2019

In Peterloo, British filmmaker Mike Leigh puts a spotlight on a little known event in British history- a march for reform in Manchester, England that became a massacre when the authorities cracked down on the protesters. This massacre, which took place on St. Peter’s Field, was dubbed the Peterloo Massacre by the contemporary press in an ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place just a few years prior. Peterloo’s message fails to connect as hard as it could, because Leigh keeps introducing new characters, whose primary job seems to be to deliver speech after speech. This blunts the impact of the events at the end, where we have almost as much connection to a random participant as we do the young soldier to whom we were introduced at the film’s beginning. Still, Leigh is a skilled and experienced filmmaker and for all of its sudden changes of narrative direction, it remains a compelling watch.

Peterloo opens at Waterloo, at which Napoleon’s forces met their defeat at the hands of the British. Here, we meet a young bugler named Joseph (David Moorst). Even after he makes it back to his home in Manchester, Joseph is affected by the chaos and carnage he saw all around him on the battlefield. His family in Manchester works at the local textile mill. They’re already living hand to mouth. They are dealt a series of blows when first Parliament enacts the ‘Corn Laws,’ which were meant to protect local grain production but only served to drive the price of basic commodities like bread way up, and then the mill announces it is reducing wages as a cost-saving measure. In this climate, the family is receptive to the messages of local firebrands known as the Manchester Patriotic Union who call for parliamentary representation and other democratic reforms.

The Union decides to organize a rally in support of their cause and they invite famed speaker Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt to speak. Hunt, played by Rory Kinnear (The Imitation Game), is an energetic proponent for parliamentary reform, despite being a wealthy landowner who benefits from the status quo. The leaders of the Manchester movement, such as the publishers of The Observer, a local paper, aren’t sure he can be trusted. Others, like Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell, Victor Frankenstein) argue that Hunt’s money is what is important- it makes him a voice that can’t easily be cowed or ignored. Bamford soon finds out, though, that Hunt’s voice is also one that will not share the spotlight.

Leigh is a skilled and experienced filmmaker and for all of [Peterloo’s] sudden changes of narrative direction, it remains a compelling watch.

Mike Leigh’s been making movies since 1971’s Bleak Moments. From the start, his method of crafting a film is legendary. He doesn’t enter into production with a set script. Rather, he works with his actors to form their scenes from improvisations off a rough outline. This has always been an obstacle for him when seeking funding for a movie- the producers want to see a script, but Leigh won’t have one until he’s done shooting the movie. Now, Amazon Studios produced his latest work, giving him his largest budget to date. $18 million might not be a huge sum compared to the standard Hollywood blockbuster, but for Leigh, it’s a windfall. He makes sure he puts that money up on the screen- even when you’re not likely to notice the digital effects that increase the size of crowds from 200 to 20,000; or transform a modern skyline to one from 200 years ago. Working with longtime cinematographer Dick Pope (the two have collaborated since 1990’s Life is Sweet), Leigh shot Peterloo on digital (his second film to do so).  

As a filmmaker, Leigh has never focused heavily on narrative, even when depicting the lives of historical figures such as Gilbert and Sullivan (in Topsy Turvy) or painter J.M.W. Turner (in Mr. Turner).  His films are intimate examinations of characters, warts and all. He uses whatever story he has to illuminate various facets of the people inhabiting his films. Peterloo, as a depiction of a historical event, is by necessity, more story driven than is usual for Leigh. Maybe this is why he has such a hard time maintaining a thread for very long. We start off following the family of the soldier, then we meet the leaders of the Manchester Patriotic Union, then we spend time with Hunt, then we follow the machinations of the magistrates as they try to find reasons to shut the meeting down, and so on. Every so often, we’ll circle briefly back to that family, but the film’s interest clearly lies elsewhere.

In its subject matter- a peaceful demonstration that becomes a massacre without warning- Peterloo reminded me of another such film: Battleship Potemkin. Sergei Eisenstein’s epic (an epic that runs half the length of Peterloo, but an epic nevertheless) was made for entirely different purposes and served a much different set of masters, but both films use the shocking violence committed by governments as a call to action. Leigh doesn’t want anyone to take democracy for granted. In Peterloo one of the characters comments on their granddaughter, noting that in the year 1900 she’ll be 85 years old. “I hope it’s a better world,” the grandmother says. Grandfather replies that “some things will get better, and some things will never change.” Two hundred years past the events in the movie, we’re still grappling with the same issues of income inequality, as more and more wealth and political power are being consolidated into fewer and fewer hands. The promise of democracy, one man one vote, which was being fought so hard for by these men and women in Northern England in 1819, is just as elusive today. Only instead of fighting for it today, we seem content to sit back and willingly have it taken.