Peterloo


Mike Leigh's latest movie, Peterloo, is one of the most disappointing films I've ever seen.

This is not to say it is necessarily a bad movie — there are countless worse ones, and, indeed, there are things to admire in Peterloo. Disappointment depends on one's expectations; mine were so high that I sought out a British DVD because Peterloo isn't being released in U.S. theatres until next month, and maybe not to a theatre anywhere near my rural world. (Amazon is one of the producers, so I assume it will hit Amazon Prime once it finishes its limited U.S. run.)

My disappointment stemmed from having not been disappointed with a Mike Leigh film since 1997's Career Girls, a movie about which the less said, the better. With that one exception, Leigh's run from High Hopes in 1988 to Mr. Turner in 2014 seems to me one of the most consistently interesting of any English-language filmmaker. (His earlier work I have more mixed feelings about. A lot of it seems intentionally off-putting, tales of terrible people being terrible in terrible circumstances, and it succeeds quite impressively at being what it is, but I can't say it's stuff I rush to re-watch. Even the less noxious material, like Nuts in May, while sometimes fun, is too loose and inconsequential for my taste, though interesting to think about in terms of the development of Leigh's approach. It was with Naked in 1993 that Leigh brought the bile of his early work into something sublime, a deeply disturbing movie that is also somehow weirdly life-affirming. It also seems to have served as something of a purgation for him; there is nothing in his post-Naked movies to quite match the strain of nastiness running through some of his earlier work. After Naked, a great miserabilist was able to mature out of miserabilism.) I cherish most of Leigh's feature films, but Mr. Turner stands apart as a movie that touches whatever I might call my soul, a movie I have only grown to love more and more since first seeing it, an essential work of art for my existence. Whatever Leigh did next had to be good, didn't it?

Then we got the teaser trailer. Obviously, trailers can be highly misleading, but this looked ... solid. Lots of potential. Leigh's skill with emotion tied to a powerful political moment? A historical film with what seemed like a relatively large budget to indulge his obsession for research? My interest was piqued, my appetite whetted.

Alas.

Oddly, Peterloo is best when it is least like an expected Leigh movie: in its moments of action. The opening scene, a long single shot in which a seemingly shellshocked soldier stands amidst the last moments of the battle of Waterloo, is perhaps the single best scene in the film: evocative, multiply meaningful, emotionally rich, visually striking. The scenes at the end of the film of the Peterloo massacre are also effective, doing a particularly fine job of showing what slow, handmade mass violence in close quarters can look like. There are individual scenes that are also compelling in one way or another, such as Dorothy Atkinson (reprising her facial makeup from Mr. Turner) as the Singing Weaver.

But nothing coheres. Not one of the characters becomes much more than types and outlines, shadows and suggestions. The film is more of a collection of snapshots than a story, and so by the time of the massacre — which anybody who knows anything about the film knows is coming — there's no way to care. The lower classes were treated terribly and disenfranchised, the ruling classes despised them, a meeting that was supposed to be peaceful became murderous. Okay. Thanks, Mike, but we knew that already.


Hence disappointment. The last thing I expect of a Mike Leigh movie is for none of the characters to feel fleshed out. That's the whole point of his quasi-Stanislavskian process of developing characters with actors before writing a finished script. Like Kubrick, Leigh has a clear fondness for caricatures, but usually even his caricatures feel richly developed. Not in Peterloo, where the ruling class characters are quickly drawn cartoons. The characters who are not caricatured are simply forgettable.

The biggest problem may just be that there are too many characters. Peterloo attempts to be an epic, showing what's going on at various levels of society leading up to the massacre. Even at two-and-half hours, the film isn't long enough to encapsulate all that, and so it collapses in glimpses, sketches, and stereotypes. Leigh's best films all focus on small groups of people — even Topsy-Turvy, which has a large cast, focuses primarily around only a few characters, with all the others as satellites.

Topsy-Turvy is probably the best comparison with Peterloo because both are historical films built around a culminating experience that draws all of the characters together: the premiere of The Mikado in Topsy-Turvy, the massacre in Peterloo. But a crowd being attacked by soldiers in a closed-off area is a rather different culmination than a major theatrical production. One of the things that makes Tospy-Turvy work so well is that operettas involve lots of different types of activity that begin separately and then unite in the performance. This is a wonderful template for a story: various people doing various things variously, bit by bit coming together toward a final singular effect. People's functions working toward a production are more or less discreet: the writers, the actors, the musicians, the choreographer, the costumer, the set builders, etc. etc. Each has a job, the job is legible and bounded, and so we as the audience can flit from one to another with interest and without confusion. Because Gilbert & Sullivan were also so involved in directing and realizing the actual production, their characters are easy ones through which the audience's interest can focalize. They serve as the gravitational center. Not only do we see the production through their writing and wrangling of it, but we also encounter so many of the film's ideas and themes through them. One of the things I cherish about Topsy-Turvy is that it shows how blatantly, ignorantly racist the writing and realizing of The Mikado was — and how flat-out racist The Mikado is — but also, at the same time, how compelling and beautiful the work is. That tension is embodied by the characterizations of Gilbert and Sullivan. (Especially Jim Broadbent's performance as Gilbert, a tremendously dislikeable fellow who is also tremendously compelling to watch.) There's nothing like this in Peterloo, no characters to drive both the events and the ideas, and there's no tension within the ideas in the way that there is in Topsy-Turvy.

At this point in Leigh's career, there are certain types of characters he's drawn to, and we can see them in evidence in Peterloo, but none are remotely as interesting as their cousins in other films, though it's clear that they could have been. Take Joseph, for instance, the Waterloo soldier we see at the beginning. He seems to have a lot in common with characters like Colin (Tim Roth) in Meantime, Archie (Ewen Bremner) in Naked, and Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) in Mr. Turner — a certain difficulty communicating, a distance from the world — and yet not much is done with the character. Actor David Moorst does a nice job trying to give him some humanity, but he doesn't have enough time on screen to allow anything but the barest outline. The decision to de-emphasize his character makes little sense in terms of the story, because he is the film's thread between Waterloo and Peterloo. We never really understand anything about him, and the character is entirely static: he begins traumatized and ends traumatized. He never even changes his coat. We could have, perhaps, gotten to know his family and learned more about them and their relationship to him, but while they are the main family in the film, the story drifts away from them too frequently for us to see them as anything other than a few poses and attitudes. So when tragedy occurs, it doesn't feel like tragedy. It's just a thing that happens. Like all the other things that happen in the movie. That could be an alternate title for Peterloo: Stuff Happens.

In addition to stuff happening, people talk. In a Mike Leigh film, of course, we expect talking — but we expect great talking. Think of Poppy (Sally Hawkins) in Happy-Go-Lucky or Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) in Secrets & Lies or Johnny (David Thewlis) in Naked — great, even logorrheic talkers, their talking a central element of their characterization. There's talking in Peterloo, but it's dull. Leigh lingers in a few political meetings where people make statements and protests, but the scenes are repetitive and boring. While to some extent (if we can force ourselves to keep paying attention) they help us understand the issues at play, they do nothing to make us care about those issues. It's just a bunch of people yammering on. It would be unfair to compare Peterloo to masterpieces of political filmmaking like BPM, Land & Freedom, and Matewan (films with multiple, lengthy scenes of compelling political discussion), but we could certainly compare Peterloo's moments of political discussion to scenes in such movies as The Young Karl Marx or Iron-Jawed Angelsflawed films, certainly, but with many more rousing moments than Peterloo. It can be done. Peterloo doesn't do it.


I missed the tremendous humanity that exudes from Leigh's films, the sense that even the terrible people are worth some compassion. Though his subjects are usually small and domestic, I've always felt a great socio-political resonance from his work because it so insistently embeds the domestic within the social. Leigh ought to have been able to take the broad canvas of the circumstances leading to the massacre in St. Peter's Field in August of 1819 and to give those circumstances resonance through human struggle, human hope, human failure, human dreams, human pain. Instead, we get cardboard cut-outs for characters, a fussy mise-en-scene, and a narrative held together by nothing other than common geography.

Even the elements of Peterloo that work feel misplaced. Dick Pope's cinematography is, as always, impressive, but it's too beautiful and static. The film looks like an animated version of Dutch master paintings. There are many strikingly beautiful shots, but to what purpose? The cinematography in Mr. Turner felt like a perfect match of style and subject, but in Peterloo the style feels random, and sometimes works against the purpose — the scenes are too beautiful, the costumes and props too perfectly placed, the whole something akin to a mannequin tableau.

Again, it's not a bad movie — there's nothing especially embarrassing in it, there are scenes that work well as scenes, quite a few visually interesting shots, an impressive attention to physical historical detail, some interesting moments of acting. Not bad. But nothing that actually adds up to a good movie. And certainly nothing that approaches the mastery of so many of Mike Leigh's other films.

Hence, a great disappointment.

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