What if nothing happens? What if a big, massive, terrible event occurs and the world collectively shrugs at it and everything goes on as it was. That’s probably what happens most of the time, actually. But in cinema that’s not what we see. The futility of those without power being crushed by those with it is often overlooked for the triumph of the weak toppling the strong. I’d wager, however, that the latter occurs far less often than the former but it makes a more entertaining movie, so it’s what we see.
Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is a film about one of those events that did nothing. Of course, today most of us have at least heard of Peterloo, especially if you live in the UK but, at the time of the event, it had almost no effect on the social and political structure of the United Kingdom. It was a pointless massacre created through a series of unfortunate events that changed nothing and affected only the lives of those who were killed and their families.
How do you make a movie about an event that was horrific but did nothing? Leigh attempts to tackle that while making a few political statements of his own with varying degrees of success.
Director: Mike Leigh
Release Date: April 5, 2019
Peterloo is a movie that needs a bit of a history lesson, and Leigh’s incredibly austere style of filmmaking doesn’t quite deliver. I found myself in need of a Wikipedia read after I saw the film just to fill in the history surrounding the few months that Leigh covers in the film. There is a lot of unrest in the UK as manufacturing jobs start to dwindle thanks to advancing technology and the economy failed to provide for everyone. This led to a strong push for social reform and a desire for democratically elected representatives in Parliament. The northern parts of England, which are traditionally poorer areas, were especially hard hit and so in Manchester, the government feared an uprising.
This is where Peterloo really begins as a young man named Joseph (David Moorst) returns home from the war to his family, headed by Joshua (Pearce Quigley) and Nellie (Maxine Peake). The film initially seems to want to focus on their story in relation to the buildup to the Peterloo massacre, but it quickly becomes about the entire effort to recruit renowned radical and public speaker Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) to give a speech. Well, not even that. There’s a very loose plotline to the film but it mostly seems to be content with setting up almost a series of vignettes with a plethora of characters that establish the world leading up to the massacre. Less plot, and more thematics throughout.
This leads to a first half of a film that is almost entirely speeches and it can be rough to sit through. The movie introduces so many characters without introducing them that it can be confusing to remember who is who. They simply appear on screen to give a speech and then may or may not return as the film progresses. The camera dutifully jumps from one speaking location to another as different people shout, stamp, and deliver heartfelt speeches. All the speeches are actually very well done, but there’s about ten of them and they shove out any other character development in the film. Joshua, Nellie, and their family become characters pushed around by the whims of the film. We’re not really able to latch onto anyone so that by the time the film hits its peak at the actual massacre the emotional impact it should have is muted.
However, this isn’t all bad. Leigh’s direction and editing are so subdued that when the peaceful protest begins getting out of control the film is able to elevate this by ratcheting up the pace and speed. It makes the event itself stunningly powerful even if the emotional connection isn’t there. Leigh’s decision to not have a score throughout the entire film is also a bold directorial choice that seems off-putting at first until the sounds and volume of a massacre begin blaring from the screen, instantly shocking you into a stunned stupor at the violence being perpetrated.
Leigh also makes a smart decision in how he portrays those in power and those not. The people of Manchester are shot in stark ways with little fanfare to what they’re doing or saying. Shots are almost lazy in how they frame and project the various protesters and citizens of Manchester who populate the film, leading to a feeling of a very real, dull world that they live in. Meanwhile, whenever the film is focussing on the magistrates of the area, the British government, or royalty, it almost enters a level of absurdist parody. The shift in tone is drastic and yet compliments the themes of the film involving the disconnect between these starving and downtrodden people and a government that doesn’t seem to care about them at all. It’s also just kind of bonkers to watch and leads to some fantastic moments of dark humor littered throughout the film.
The cast all do a fine job with what they are given. As I said, the speeches are delivered with aplomb and many are reportedly based on the actual ones given. There are roaring dissertations that last for more than ten minutes and its easy to get swept up in them thanks to the actors pulling a lot of the weight. Leigh seems less interested in ratcheting up the tension and more interested in documenting something that wasn’t actually documented. Thankfully, his actors can move things along even if he isn’t up for the task.
Peterloo is an odd film that works, surprisingly, because it doesn’t. Leigh’s adherence to a steady, unfussy direction and dedication to speech after speech makes for a movie that seems interminable until suddenly it isn’t. This is clearly intentional, but I’m not sure it’s worth it. The film concludes on the same kind of hopeless note — an appropriate ending for a film about a massacre that changed nothing — and that, coupled with the shock and stunning violence of Peterloo itself, change the effect of the entire film that came before it. Yet, there is so much of that film to get through before it becomes good in retrospect one wouldn’t be blamed for just avoiding it entirely.