A quarter of a century ago, Peterloo might have garnered Leigh great acclaim.
In this time of ascendant authoritarianism, director Mike Leigh undoubtedly wanted to make a film that would remind audiences of the cost too many have paid in the fight for democracy. Peterloo, an epic chronicle that dramatizes the events leading up to the 1819 massacre of attendees at a political reform rally at Saint Peter’s Field in Manchester, England, is sadly not that film. While Leigh’s intentions are worthy, his efforts as writer and director produce a gorgeously framed and photographed bloated mess that will survive as long as Amazon Studios continues to cross promote its films on its Prime service. Otherwise, it would fade into the ether with Michael Collins, The Bastard and Revolution.
The film starts with the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the wanderings of a lone, English infantryman, Joshua (David Moorst), as he makes his way from the battlefield to his father’s home in Manchester. Like so many soldiers throughout history, Joshua has been forgotten once his war has ended. He’s desperately looking for work, wearing his red uniform jacket, his facial tics and far off stares indicating PTSD. Leigh wants to make it clear that Joshua suffers and that he has returned from war vastly transformed, and this insistence is the director’s fatal flaw. Leigh wants his audience to grasp everything from the Corn Laws, a heavy tariff on grains that nearly starved the British population, to the parliamentary structure of the British government, and he attempts this in the most cartoonish way possible.
Peterloo comes off as a Monty Python sketch where a range of caricatures from stately lords to the lowest worker talk about democracy, the rights of man and moral superiority through thick accents. But unlike a Monty Python sketch, no punchline ever arrives to give the film any teeth. Instead, the entire affair plays like an earnest paint-by-numbers historical drama in dire need of a creative force to hone the message of the fragility of democracy. But at its core, Peterloo is a disaster movie with the massacre looming as its iceberg. Such films rely heavily on archetype, so all the working class men are portrayed as idealistic dreamers who believe they can change the course of history and attain the vote. Their wives are all pragmatists who follow them onto the Titanic, excuse me, onto Saint Peter’s Field on the day of the rally to show their support and share bread with strangers from distant villages. These are all good, noble people capable of participatory democracy if only the Prince Regent (Tim McInnery) could see it.
Sadly, the Prince, magistrates, politicians and noble people are all deeply sinister, always expectorating and enunciating to reach the farthest reaches of the theater in every two to four person medium shot. They govern from a sense of moral superiority that blinds them to their greed, happy to send a man to his death for stealing a coat as well as turning the armed forces against an assembled mass of thousands that includes woman and children. None of the actors, whether portraying people on the right side of history or the wrong, avail themselves particularly well. But given the consistency of the performances, Leigh was evidently aspiring toward two-dimensionality, and it’s a choice so stunning that it cannot help but raise questions about the director’s entire filmography. Was he always so brazenly mediocre or was this genre simply outside his wheelhouse?
To Leigh’s credit, the film does serves as a reminder of the continued role violence plays as a tool of the state. Scenes of the military preparing for the rally at St. Peter’s Field recall images of police excesses during the days of Occupy Wall Street and Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting of Michael Brown. He is offering both a critique of our current political moment and a reminder that the rights many have grown so apathetic in defending were won with blood. The powerful do not bargain easily, and the price will be the same as long as the notion of equality seems like something worth fighting for. A free press also gets its due here, particularly local papers. After violence erupts, journalists rounded up by the military will tell the story of what happened that day, dubbing the massacre at Saint Peter’s Field Peterloo as a nod to Napoleon’s last stand, and a hope that the British aristocracy is nearing its end.
A quarter of a century ago, Peterloo might have garnered Leigh great acclaim. Every Oscar season teemed with historical epics back then. Perhaps that’s a contributing factor to our current ahistorical moment that Leigh rightly fears. He made a movie desperate to teach its audience some history, but film has really never been the best medium for that.