TIFF18: Peterloo

2018 doesn’t need this movie. Arguably, the whole world at large doesn’t need another movie about angry white men emancipating themselves from tyranny while – without a trace of irony – refusing to bring anyone else along with them.

Director Mike Leigh, himself an old white man, clearly believes every florid word uttered by his forefathers is precious. Why else allow for so many agonizing extended speeches, spit-shoutingly reproduced at full length? Peterloo feels less like a movie and more like a scrap book that speechifying white men made as an ode to themselves. Not that there aren’t any women at all – someone needs to pour the water when all that edifying leaves the men cotton-mouthed.peterloo_0HERO

Peterloo is about that time in England’s history, after Napoleon is defeated at Waterloo, when nothing seems to have improved for its people. In fact, the poor are getting poorer, thanks to bread taxes, crop shortages, and insufficient wages. And not content to merely get richer, the rich oppress their countrymen, sentencing an old woman to whipping for being “loose and idle”, a man exiled to Australia for being too good at gambling, and another to the gallows for stealing a coat when he had none.

Though the people are starving and can hardly stand upright after a day’s back-breaking labour, the Reformers organize their best orators to rally the people toward rights and representation. Parliament is not only afraid to lose even an iota of power, they’re downright enraged that anyone should feel so entitled. So they make lengthy, impassioned speeches too. Mike Leigh throws in a scene of the women getting in on the action too, clearly meant to reassure us that the egregious sexism isn’t nearly so bad as we’re thinking, but in fact accomplishes just the opposite. The women’s meeting is full of illiterates and in-fighting. That can’t have been an exclusively female problem but that’s the way Mike remembers it.

I suppose Peterloo is technically well-made (though the opening Waterloo battle scene looks especially unconvincing – old wagon wheels and bugles just weren’t meant to be captured in such crisp detail). I have to believe this is why TIFF has invited so many more female and minority critics this year: so we can call crap when we see it. Of course, I’m going to keep it classy, unlike a male critic in Venice this year who called the festival’s only female director a whore when he didn’t like her movie.

Standing in line to pick up my press credentials, the guy in front of me told the guy behind me (both were bearded middle-aged white men, it probably goes without saying) that last year’s must-see film for him was the Louis C.K. one, with no embarrassment or chagrin. This is why diversity in criticism is important. While plenty of white male critics also manage to be human beings, many do not. And the obsolescent opinions are always the loudest, as this movie admirably (and unintentionally) proves. Loud and wrong, on the shitty side of history.

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21 thoughts on “TIFF18: Peterloo

  1. Paul. Writer and Filmmaker

    Politicking aside, Mike Leigh is one of the finest filmmakers around whose films have reflected diversity, class, human and gender conflicts over the last few decades. Not sure why this film deserves particular ire from a gender perspective given it’s a historical drama that could be reflecting accurately the perspectives of the era. I’ll look forward to seeing Peterloo at the London Film Festival and deciding for myself.

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    1. Jay Post author

      Just because it happened doesn’t make it right, or acceptable to modern audiences.The last thing 2018 needs is another movie about white men self-aggrandizing. There are many more stories to be told.

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      1. Paul. Writer and Filmmaker

        But what’s the story about? I haven’t seen the film but my understanding is it’s about British forces charging on a peaceful pro-democracy rally at St Peter’s Field in Manchester, England, which results in the Peterloo Massacre.

        Isn’t it about the ruling classes prejudicing the working or under-classes; something which could draw parallels with events today? Given the nature of events which have occurred in the USA under Trump’s administration could the film potentially be quite appropriate as a historical drama?

        I mean, I respect you did not enjoy the film but to attack the work of a filmmaker who has a diverse history reflecting societal and human issues seems harsh to me.

        Plus, I see no correlation between Mike Leigh and sexist film critics; he’s very much from the left and liberal side. Does Peterloo praise or actually attack the ruling classes led no doubt by white, rich men. My feeling is it would be the latter.

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    2. Jay Post author

      I believe the initiative toward inclusiveness is exactly for this purpose. So that dissenting opinions can be heard AND CAN BE VALIDATED. So that it’s not just white men applauding the work of white men. I have not attacked Mike Leigh. The ONLY thing I said about the man himself is that he is old and white, which he inarguably is.
      This movie feels dated and it’s not even out yet. We can’t afford to keep looking back with our same old (white, male) lenses. And when a female critic says she felt uncomfortable AS A FEMALE, she doesn’t need or want a man to ‘correct’ her opinion.

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      1. Paul. Writer and Filmmaker

        Who’s correcting whose opinion? I’m merely stating that this was, in my opinion, a review which seemed to attack the film and filmmaker from a uncorrelated gender perspective and seemed harsh. You are entitled, on an open forum to state your opinion and I’m saying I disagree.

        It’s especially harsh given Mike Leigh has made a film about the working classes, who at the time, were excluded from having a voice at the time. It’s ironic you dismiss a film because it’s made by an old, white male that is bringing to the fore an event where people were killed by the ruling powers. By excluding Leigh’s voice, or any voice, could that construed as prejudice too? I could understand if the film was some kind of right wing, racist or anti-humanist tract but I gather from reviews, including your own, that it is not. Would the film be acceptable to you if, like Suffragette (2015), it had been directed by a women? Surely equality dictates we judge everything on merit and not simply by the author’s background?

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    3. Jay Post author

      It’s the content I object to. Not everyone is dazzled by or identifies with yet another film about men patting themselves on the back while actually oppressing others. It is not the time for such story lines.

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    4. Sean

      Late to the party here but what an ignorant argument to advance against a criticism that a festival (TIFF) that is actively promoting itself as diverse should feature fewer stories about white males, and in particular fewer stories that portray women in a sexist manner.

      Most alarmingly, you suggested that Jay should have self-censored, either by not seeing the movie or not criticizing it. Either way, you proved her point.

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      1. Paul. Writer and Filmmaker

        I haven’t seen the film but I was defending Mike Leigh’s record as an intelligent and inclusive filmmaker. Have Jay or you seen Happy Go Lucky or Vera Drake? Leigh, in my opinion, is not a sexist filmmaker but telling a story about an important moment where the working classes were oppressed. You’re free to say DON’T watch this film and I’m free to disagree. It’s an honest debate.

        My final comment is ironic but perhaps too nuanced. Apologies for that because ultimately you seem to be missing my point, maybe because it’s not well made or up against a dogmatic fervour. PETERLOO surely is about freedom of speech is some form, and Leigh’s research would be meticulous. I was just surprised it was critiqued that it did not matter. I thought all lives and stories mattered. I respect and accept if you don’t like the story but why prejudice against it because a man told it. I just didn’t get that.

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      2. Paul. Writer and Filmmaker

        PS can I just put this debate aside by saying I love your site and your views. I believe myself to be an inclusive person who believes in diversity and equality. You are of course correct when you say there should be more balance when it comes to representation in festivals and culture. I’m specifically looking at Mike Leigh as a filmmaker and believe his work would never be intended to be offensive from a gender perspective.
        Your points are very valid, I was surprised they were being levied at his latest film. Cheers, Paul

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  2. Bryan Fagan

    I have a feeling this is one of those movies where you love it or your don’t. These kinds of movies tend to favor a certain crowd. I may have to check it out just out of curiosity.

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    1. Jay Post author

      I’m not sure this one will really earn a lot of love, but perhaps some respect, perhaps only complacency. I daresay that even men who are not sick of male stories will find this one quite inert.

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