A slice of history in the hands of a master
Mike Leigh brings his mastery of filmmaking to a massacre that happened in Manchester, England, in 1819.
The movie opens with the image of a lost, bewildered bugle boy in the aftermath of the battle of Waterloo. We follow him as he walks all the way home to Manchester. At the end of the movie, Leigh will return to a parallel landscape of desolation, and to this lad, like many young men, cannon fodder to the whims of politicians.
In Peterloo, the people are tired of those whims and they want their voices heard. But the rulers seem to have all the words, be it members of parliament, or provincial magistrates. Language is used by the powerful to lord over the people with contemptuous oratorical flourishes, but it is also used by reformers to impassion the hearts of the disenfranchised to demand change.
That Leigh is able to make a historical epic fresh, alive, and somehow intimate is a testament to his fabled way of making movies, which involves 6 months of rehearsal as he and the actors come up with the script together. The result is that, by the time of the shoot, all the characters are so lived in, they feel like real, dimensional people. I wonder how he and his cast arrived at language of such extraordinary richness and specificity through this collaborative, improvisational process.
Peterloo is Dickensian in scope and tone, showing scores of characters from different walks of life, from the royals, to aristocratic parliamentarians, to merchants, magistrates, clergy, journalists, soldiers, police, factory owners, and the working class, men, women, and children. It’s a microcosm of England.
Leigh does not pretend to hide his sharp antipathy for the patronizing, callous, greedy, pompous, arrogant men at the top of the ladder. But he is an artist, not a propagandist, so he focuses on the flaws of humanity on both sides. His reformers can be sincere but intemperate or opportunistic, whereas those in need of reform can be jaded, skeptical or act against their own self-interest. Some of the rich have a conscience, but men with power and privilege will always do whatever it takes to protect them.
Peterloo does not focus on an individual hero. The heroes are the citizens who are fighting to have the vote, and they are a motley crew, from working class people, to small business owners, to wealthy, educated reformers. The organizers of the protest invite the fabled, and apparently highly narcissistic reformer Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) to address the rally, but in a masterful coup, Leigh places us in the back, with the family of the soldier from the opening scene, and we can’t hear a word Hunt says. Had this been a Hollywood movie, a hero would have been fashioned who would manage to say rousing words. But, as a consummate storyteller, Mike Leigh is deeply attached to human verisimilitude. His movies make human sense.
The cast is brilliant and the cinematography by Dick Pope is breathtaking.
Leigh builds the events leading up to the massacre with enormous detail and a deliberate pace, with unflinching intimacy. On the fateful, sunny day of the protest, families leave their houses and march peacefully, while the powerful plot their repression. When the violence comes, it is shot at close range, and it is lengthy and appalling.
The contempt of the aristocracy for the regular people is not only heard in the patronizing way they are perceived, as children who don’t know what is good for them, but also in the fateful indifference of general John Byng who is tasked with containing the rebellion, but feels controlling the rabble is beneath him, hence he puts an underling in charge, to disastrous results. In a jarring scene, we find why he decided to be absent that day, and it is shocking and offensive, but somehow not surprising. This callousness is resonant today. Peterloo is relevant because regular people, (middle class professionals, college students, working class people, the poor) are being kept down by a similar conspiracy of oligarchs and omnipotent corporations. Like the people of Peterloo, we do not have a working democracy, and our legitimate complaints fall on deaf ears.
Leigh is known for making small, intimate movies of people at their most vulnerable, but in Peterloo he shows he can be as attuned to humanity on a grand historical canvas. As in those days, we are all vulnerable now, and should be active custodians of our freedoms.