It’s difficult to suppress a chuckle when you learn that an angry historical film about exploited workers is being distributed in the U.S. by Amazon, but then again, giant corporations have very little to fear from vaguely Marxist films, and stalwart Corbynista filmmakers are of course happy to cash Amazon’s checks. What do the people — you and me — get out of it? A crushingly dull movie.
Mike Leigh, perhaps the most critically esteemed British filmmaker alive, looks like Jeremy Corbyn’s older brother, is an avowed socialist, and has made the historical film Peterloo in hopes of engaging and enraging the workers today. What it will do instead is put to sleep however many diehard reds show up. Which won’t be many.
The events of August 16, 1819, in industrial Manchester, England, are indeed shocking. Workers staged a one-day walkout to march and attend a speech advocating universal suffrage and annual elections. (At the time, only wealthy men could vote in Britain.) A small group of magistrates who made the law in the city ordered the arrest of the speaker, an agitator named Henry Hunt, and called in soldiers on horseback, who stormed through the unarmed crowd with sabers and killed 18 people, wounding hundreds more. The prince regent subsequently praised the violent response to the non-riot, which took place in St. Peter’s Field a few years after Waterloo. Waggish journalists compared the carnage to that of a battlefield and dubbed the incident “the Peterloo massacre.”
Today the incident is largely forgotten. Leigh, who grew up 15 minutes away in working-class Manchester (yay!) as the son of a doctor (boo!), has said he never heard about it growing up. Yet what are we to make of it today? A group of magistrates behaved extremely foolishly 200 years ago, and a lot of sacrifices were made on the way to universal suffrage, but Leigh doesn’t build the film into a convincing critique of capitalism or even much of a plea for respect for the working class.
A film that cast its eye broadly over what life was like for a shed worker in Manchester in 1819 would have some value, but what does Leigh do instead? He serves up speeches. Long ones. Several of them consecutively. Then a brief break. Then more long speeches. This goes on for nearly two hours. The hussars don’t ride in until the last 20 minutes.
Leigh is rightly praised for the naturalism and authenticity with which he invests his films, famously assembled with much creative input from his actors, and for taking enough distance from his characters that the audience is free to draw its own conclusions rather than having a message shoved in its face or being urged to feel a given emotion. He can’t fairly be accused of being sentimental or didactic or on-the-nose, or of choosing a movie-movie ending instead of sticking closer to the frustrations and ambiguities of life. He tends to the detached and circumspect, which makes him as proper a choice as any to carry the British flag into world cinema.
Which is why this bristling, pugnacious, wearyingly didactic film is so inexplicable. To watch Mike Leigh make a mistake like this is like watching Yo-Yo Ma try to play the cello with a fireplace poker. Leigh’s magistrates fulminate in tones that make Emperor Palpatine look measured, then we switch over to the workers’ speeches, which are equally bombastic in the other direction. Leigh can’t even settle on a route into the story; he begins with a battle-dazed lone soldier returning from Waterloo in order to connect the two instances of bloodshed, but soon after the young man gets home and pathetically searches for work, Leigh forgets about him. We come across him again toward the end, but since we know him so little, his fate isn’t affecting. The rest of the cast mostly consists of mouthpieces for good or evil. The only characters who get more than superficial treatment are Hunt (played with a kind of strangled dedication by Rory Kinnear), who has some fine qualities but is also insensitive to the people for whom he is supposedly fighting, and a working-class woman who argues that protests will do more harm than good for their lot.
It may be that Leigh thinks Peterloo is so criminally neglected by history that he had to abandon his customary understatement and grab us by the lapels. Unfortunately for him, nobody likes a two-and-half-hour rant, no matter how loudly delivered. Peterloo is one of Mike Leigh’s worst films.