Utter Chaos

Nick Pinkerton on Mike Leigh’s Peterloo (2018)

Mike Leigh, Peterloo, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 154 minutes.

TO DESCRIBE A FILM AS “TALKY” IS, as often as not, to indicate a pejorative judgement; in a thousand screenwriting primers, you will read the adage “Show, don’t tell”—like any rule in art, this is to be discarded at will when circumstances demand. Mike Leigh never read any of those books, thank God, and though you could dismiss his latest work, the oratory-laden Peterloo, as talky, to do so would be to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of his project, which is precisely concerned with the relationship between speech and action, the butterfly-effect principle whereby words spoken in, say, the House of Commons in London can result a few years later in dead bodies in Saint Peter’s Square, Manchester.

Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian general celebrated in his day for his actions on the battlefield during the Napoleonic Wars but today best remembered for his aphorisms, famously described war as “the continuation of diplomacy by other means”—in other words, what happens when the talk fails. And, indeed, the palaver that makes up Peterloo is sandwiched between two moments in which articulated speech gives way to cries of agony: It begins in the heat of one bloody military rout, the field at Waterloo, where Napoleon’s ambitions went to die in 1815, and ends in the aftermath of another, the 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, in the course of which English cavalry set upon unarmed Englishmen and women with sabers drawn. Linking these two events is the figure of Joseph (David Moorst), a young, unarmed trumpeter first encountered on the battlefield staring in a daze at the carnage around him, managing to quaveringly sound his horn through muscle memory alone. The character is perhaps based on John Lees, a Waterloo veteran, and one of Peterloo’s dead. It’s a more harrowing, up-close version of the clumsy Waterloo of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma—all mud and thunder and confusion, no glory.

Joseph returns shell-shocked to his family home in Manchester, and never thereafter will he be the boy that he was, remaining instead haunted, folded in on himself, and affected by a hard, compulsive blink that seems as if it were an attempt to flush the inescapable images of horror from his eyes. While Joseph looks in vain for a job, wearing an increasingly soiled and tattered uniform, his father works in one of the local textile factories, which is introduced in a startling smash cut that shows scores of looms chugging together in thundering unison, a mill in England’s industrial north not unlike those owned by the father of Friedrich Engels, who wrote of the misery he found among Manchester’s laborers in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845). In these times, however, the call isn’t for global revolution but for parliamentary reform and the expansion of suffrage, a cry growing louder and louder in the north, identified early on by Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson), the Home Secretary, as a hotbed of insurrection; the smoke of the American and French Revolutions is still in the air, and the English ruling classes are cagey. As Joseph’s family feels the pinch of economic hard times, including an increase in the price of bread, the men take to frequenting taverns where local reformers speak. Joseph’s father (Pearce Quigley) sees sense to some of what’s being said; it’s impossible to say if Joseph, from the depths of his PTSD, even grasps the substance of the discussion. As for Joseph’s mother (Maxine Peake), she can see nothing but trouble in this “talk, talk, talk”—just one of the expressions of distrust toward language that run through the film like a leitmotif.

Mike Leigh, Peterloo, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 154 minutes. Rory Kinnear as Henry Hunt.

Peterloo isn’t the story of Joseph or his father’s gradual political awakening, or the pressures this exerts upon the family home, though it does embrace all of these items in its scope and returns, in the end, to Joseph and the locus of his family unit. In between, it opens up to become a sort of panorama, a quilt of vignettes showing us the multitude of individuals and groups who, directly or indirectly, are involved in the Peterloo Massacre. There are the variously sneering, solemn, and sententious magistrates of Manchester, introduced sitting in chambers, in the process of handing down grotesquely disproportionate punishments for petty crimes, such as snagging a bottle of claret. There is a bevy of local reformers, including Neil Bell as Samuel Bamford, members of a women’s reform society seen in testy dialogue, and some young firebrands, most memorable among them being a long-haired Nico Mirallegro, whose character discomfits the more temperate-minded men with the violence of his apocalyptic exhortations. He is among the first victims of police suppression and is dragged into prison, where, cornered, he attempts to launch into one of his stump speeches before being beaten to the ground in brute, blunt-force rebuttal—not the last time the sword proves mightier than the pen. byFinally, there is the well-born celebrity radical Henry Hunt, Esq. (Rory Kinnear), nicknamed “Orator,” a man perfectly in his element before an adoring audience but ill at ease in close quarters with the very working classes that he would deign to lead to enfranchisement. The eloquence which makes him such an effective advocate is a by-product of the same education and advantages that seal him off from his brothers and sisters in the struggle, leaving him to baffle his Manchester hosts with requests, including “If you could bring me a light repast.”

Talk is the lifeblood of these characters, who are revealed through their discourse. This comes often in the form of political rallies, though we also see more intimate exchanges, either private rehearsals of written public declamations or Joseph’s mother haggling over the price of eggs at the market as she struggles to stretch the family purse. It is hard to think of a contemporary filmmaker more dedicated than Leigh to examining different patterns of speech—different conversational cadences, accents, and vocabularies, with their telltale markers of the speakers’ backgrounds and their place in the British society. In his filmography, one finds characters capable of verbal pyrotechnics, such as David Thewlis’s Johnny in Naked (1993), who wields his tweaky, motormouthed erudition like a weapon and can’t speak a commonplace phrase to save his life. (“Are you aware of the effect . . . you have on the average mammalian, Mancunian . . . X-Y’ly chromosome, slavering . . . lusty male member of the species?”) There is likewise a whole gallery of the tongue-tied, the inarticulate, and the closed-off: stammerers Sylvia (Anne Raitt) and Peter (Eric Allan) in Leigh’s debut, Bleak Moments (1971); Tim Roth’s morbidly shy Colin in Meantime (1983); and the grumbling, muttering working-class genius J.M.W. (Timothy Spall) in Mr. Turner (2014).

Mike Leigh, Peterloo, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 154 minutes.

In the din of talk that makes up Peterloo, one hears something of everything: the terse speech of the Lancashire peasantry, strewn with “nowts” (for “nothings”) and “summats” (for “somethings”); a broad spectrum of soapbox speechifying, much of which shares its basic DNA with the messianic language of the pulpit; and that particularly English brand of parliamentary bloviation that will be familiar to regular viewers of Prime Minister’s Questions. As the film proceeds, grandiloquent phrases are tossed about freely: “The pimps of authority,” “The creeping cholera of revolution,” and much more besides. Content often doesn’t vary vastly from speech to speech, but most everything else does, in subtle registers. Leigh is, of course, interested in the substance of all of this chatter, but he’s an artist rather than a propagandist, and he’s after something other than dinning Regency-era vintage radicalism into twenty-first-century viewers—he’s tracking the way in which ideas travel through a crowded room, landing differently from listener to listener, and the relation of thought and deed, as well as exploring the very texture of talk. His film is a veritable catalogue of elocutionary tics: the way Ian Mercer’s Dr. Joseph Healey rolls his tongue with delectation after every utterance; the tremor that afflicts Karl Johnson’s Sidmouth, something like the aftereffects of a stroke; the plummy deliverance of Tim McInnerny’s dandyish Prince Regent (ruling in lieu of the indisposed George III), who speaks as though he has a bonbon permanently wedged in his throat.

The characterizations throughout have more than a touch of Hogarth-like caricature to them, but Leigh reserves true grotesquerie for the ruling classes. He’s never made a secret of his feelings about them—I direct you to his 1992 short A Sense of History, in which the fictional 23rd Earl of Leete (Jim Broadment) gives a guided tour of his splendid estate, gradually leaking details of his murder of his entire family along the way. Here, too, the gentry are found with blood on their hands. Significantly, it’s only when the film arrives at the fateful sixteenth of August that the speechifying stops, that words fail—Joseph’s family is unable to make out Hunt’s speech from the hustings; a magistrate’s reading of the riot act from a window over the square is lost to the wind; and when Yeomanry and cavalry advance suddenly with sabers drawn, actions speak louder. The carnage that follows is genuinely awful, as overwhelming in its way as the Battle of Shrewsbury is in Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1965)—a comparison not to be wielded lightly. Leigh isn’t shooting for you-are-there-immersiveness, but rather for a clarified confusion; he doesn’t seek to do dubious honor to the dead by trying to approximate the firsthand experience of their final moments, only to show how these things might very well have happened, in all the panic and clumsiness. (Among other things, Leigh captures the very indignity, the awkwardness, of finding oneself killed.) After a film so heavy with conference and conversation, the eruption of violence is as shocking as that abrupt cut to the pounding of the looms in the mill—a reign of savagery after so much talk, talk, talk attesting to high-minded civilization. And when the smoke has cleared, it remains only to coin another word: “Peterloo.”

One final speech ends the film, a priest’s words over a fresh grave, with Joseph’s family, the backbone of the story, gathered around. The prayer is only noise, for the survivors are beyond hearing. As the Gettysburg Address, a literary accomplishment, articulates the inadequacy of eulogy for the departed, Peterloo expresses this inadequacy in agonized close-up, a moment that is singularly cinematic—you might say it shows, and doesn’t tell. This most talky film ends where it must, registering faces of anguish far beyond any expression. There is nothing left to say.

Peterloo opens in US theaters on April 5.