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 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.