Past presence

Mike Leigh, film maker. That feels a much more appropriate term than director or writer: although there are many other minds at work in his movies, in all those elements of production which are crucial to rendering his worlds so seamless and complete, it is clearly Leigh’s vision that animates all that effort. His films are made in the same way that a piece of furniture is made, or a steam engine. They are crafted in a way that is almost indifferent in its distribution of care: whether it is a belt buckle, a line delivered by an incidental character on-screen for ten seconds, the entire performance of a principal actor, or a huge set-piece like the eponymous event that concludes Peterloo, every detail is treated with the the same focussed rigour. Movies are collaborative enterprises, but when Mike Leigh is directing, his collaborators are as invested in the work as he is. Peterloo, like all his films, is treated as a matter of life and death.

This is probably the worst Mike Leigh film I’ve seen. I haven’t seen all of them, by any means, but I’ve seen a few, and for me, the others were better. Or to put it in another way, Peterloo is a brilliant film, but it’s not perfect. On the basis of his last two releases, you might think that Leigh has become a specialist C.19 historical film-maker. I can certainly imagine that once you’ve made one film in a given period there are a lot of networks and workflows already in place, should you choose to make another. This is a different species of film from Mr. Turner, however, and from most of Leigh’s work. Rather than a closely framed personal and domestic drama, Peterloo is an expansive historical epic, with multiple perspectives and interwoven plot-lines. Not the sort of thing he usually does, and not necessarily the way you’d expect him to go about dramatising a famous historical event.

A Mike Leigh film about the Peterloo Massacre, if I was asked to guess, would probably show events from ground level, from the limited perspective of a small, tightly-knit group of characters, across whose lives the grand historical currents sweep disruptively. I would expect to see the delicate, detailed, and impartial representations of relationships that I’ve come to associate with his work, lives drawn with ruthless intimacy, as close to a first-person narration as cinema can get—and to see the politics and tragedies of his big theme articulated through their impact on the personal. That’s not what he does, however: he does show us the lives of one ordinary Manchester family, but he gives equal weight to the Lancashire activist movement that organised the St. Peter’s Fields rally, and to the political currents that set the stage for its disastrous outcome.

With each of these narrative threads involving multiple characters and plotlines, there’s a lot to balance, and it’s really the only time I’ve seen Leigh make any narrative mis-steps. There isn’t the time or space to draw his characters in his usual level of detail, but with narrative emphasis shifted towards ‘what happens’, his plotting proves too fragmented and diffuse to carry the same weight. With Leigh’s attention divided, and needing to show us how the political situation looks from a variety of perspectives, he ends up putting uncharacteristically expository dialogue in the mouths of his characters—while much of it is plausible as dialogue, he doesn’t earn a place for it with characterisation, which has to take a back seat. Meanwhile, certain narrative elements seem irrelevant or unconnected, and it’s only on reading up on the background to Peterloo that I was able to slot certain characters and events into place.

The sheer weight of detail holds the viewer’s attention, of course—with Mike Leigh, nothing is ever truly a means to an end. Two servants who appear for moments in the earliest part of the film are as memorably characterised as anyone else (and I’m pretty sure that one of them is a Father Ted reference). The sets and costumes are exquisite, and as in Mr. Turner they look utterly distinct from the usual kind of shop-window bullshit that dresses most historical drama—they look lived in, worn and habituated. Dick Pope’s cinematography is breathtaking, and many shots could be mistaken for paintings. Domestic life is dramatised with unsentimental precision. Dialect is rigorously recreated, with reference to a book on Lancashire dialect written by one of the principal characters.

Details are drawn out from the historical record and given life in a kind of witness-bearing. A central character is an imagined version of one of the victims, who had fought at the Battle of Waterloo, and reading up on the times after seeing the film, dozens of such details jumped out at me. It feels as though Leigh set out to commemorate the unremembered suffering, not just of the victims of the massacre, but of all England’s poor, all the people whose privations led sixty-thousand to gather in St. Peter’s Fields to demand suffrage. To do that, he had to show not just the general shape of their experience, but the grainy, zoomed-in details—the concrete and particular. In this, his success is partial, for the reasons given above: there is not quite enough reality about the ordinary lives he depicts to tie all those details together with the same kind of conviction he achieved in Mr. Turner.

The climactic scene is still an incredible moment, however, and Leigh certainly does enough to earn a considerable emotional investment in its harrowing chaos—and being Mike Leigh, he leaves that entirely up to us, with no music, and a documentary approach to the editing that makes the event seem as incoherent and banally horrifying as one imagines it must have been in reality. It seems extraordinary how little fictional attention Peterloo has received, given its striking importance to the history of radical and reformist politics in Britain, and this lack of representation may explain why Leigh felt he had to tell the story in the way that he did. Peterloo is still a remarkable, moving film, which makes the past present in a way that the discipline of history can only envy.

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