Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, is the worst film I’ve seen by the filmmaker. Yet given my admiration for Leigh’s filmography, this isn’t entirely a dismissal, per se. But rather it’s tough to watch and consider Peterloo without experiencing a tinge of disappointment. Films like Another Year and Happy-Go-Lucky were formative as part of my early cinephilia, and I gladly plundered Leigh’s 80s and 90s output as a result. But Peterloo, with its high-octave candor and unceasing, frenzied displays of histrionics, finds Leigh in a singular mode for the totality of its runtime: Big. One of the most exciting qualities about Leigh’s filmmaking is in how it changes shape on you depending on the will of his performers. That kind of freedom, undoubtedly a result of the vastness of its budget and sheer scope, isn’t an option. As a result, in one of those paradoxical quandaries, we find Leigh’s mammoth ambitions limit the creative will of his filmmaking.
The film opens with the Battle of Waterloo, where a lone soldier Joseph (David Moorst), his infantry’s bugler, can only stand amidst the carnage of battle. He wanders back home to Manchester, his army lost, to the welcome arms of his poor family, whereupon he attempts to salvage back the pieces of his life. Like so many of the film’s characters, we observe him only in fragments, typically along side his family or in the backdrop until the film’s titular moment. But we know his origins and as such, there’s vitality to his presence whenever he merely enters the frame.
Leigh captures Manchester life in all its forms, from the perspective of the lowliest soldier to the disaffected weaver of a mill to the clueless politicians. It’s a collage of disenfranchised contrasted with the immensely franchised, whereby the film’s narrative builds up on the mythology of Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), an orator renowned for his activism and empowering the working class. A meeting is scheduled where Hunt is the intended and sole speaker, with the townspeople of Manchester all planning to attend.
When stepping back and observing the mechanics of Peterloo, it’s easy to see how Leigh constructs the film, eschewing usual markers of narrative in favor of collecting specific period detail. But as vivid as some of these details can be, they simply don’t jibe with my sentiments. The opening, wordless passage of the film are among my favorite, but Peterloo’s countless scenes involving politicians arguing over tax laws ranges from absurd to aggravating. And not the good kind that’s a call to action, but rather the kind the infuriates and prompts the viewer to look at their hands of their watch take a slice out of their life with every passing second.
The violent rendering of the riot of Peterloo is vivid but I still struggle with its merits when considering the film as a whole. As I mentioned, the bugler solider is persistently brought up throughout the film, mostly in the periphery of the frame and without much dialogue to offer. His eventual death in this battle is devastating, but like so many other characters in the film, it’s a moment that seems hollow and forecasted. Perhaps that’s the suffocating purpose of Leigh’s narrative ambitions – to drain the life out of living, suggesting a life without sentimentality, only cruel, harsh death being the supreme truth of the world.