The Tragedy of Mike Leigh’s Forgotten Masterpiece Peterloo

The 2019 Movie Club, Entry 9.

Rory Kinnear raises his fist while wearing period clothes in Peterloo. Text in the corner says, "2019 Movie Club."
Rory Kinnear in Peterloo. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by E1 Entertainment.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Bilge Ebiri, Karen Han, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here. Read the previous dispatch in the series here.

Dear Best Ensemble Cast,

Thank you, Karen, for that heartfelt song of praise to the ensemble work done this year in such blessedly protagonist-free films as Parasite, Little Women, and Hustlers. Such wildly different movies—can you imagine them converging in a crossover cinematic universe, with the March girls donating their Christmas breakfast to the pizza box–folding Kims, then coming home to find that J. Lo’s Ramona had rewarded their largesse with gifts of fur coats and bling? But all three works shared a certain breadth of perspective, a sense that the world is much bigger than any one person’s, one family’s, or even one strip club’s story.

Another 2019 pinnacle of ensemble filmmaking, a historical epic in which every character is as necessary as a chess piece, was Mike Leigh’s Peterloo. It’s the story of a real-life atrocity—the 1819 massacre of a group of peaceful labor protesters by English cavalry forces—told from a bird’s-eye perspective that makes the political debates among a group of employees in a Manchester print shop, or the worried kitchen-table talk of a desperately poor family, just as significant as the florid speeches of the famed orator played by Rory Kinnear. The world Leigh creates is as full of vivid social “types” as a print by William Hogarth, the artist and political cartoonist who depicted the extremes of luxury and squalor in English society two generations before this movie takes place. But Leigh also imbues each character—the foppish and decadent king, the anxious housemaid, the permanently damaged young veteran of the Napoleonic Wars—with an irreducible individuality. Peterloo’s quick trip in and out of theaters, its relatively tepid reception from many of the same critics who adored more character-focused Leigh period pieces like Topsy-Turvy and Mr. Turner, and its complete absence from ersatz distributor Amazon’s end-of-year push strike me as among the year’s great cinematic injustices. I hope now that it’s available on streaming, people will take more time for this bleak—but also moving, inspiring, and funny—indictment of early industrial capitalism, still so piercingly relevant in our own late-capitalist era.

Now to Alison’s question about the year in documentaries. I think of  They Shall Not Grow Old as a 2018 film, because that was the year it was officially released and the one in which I began trying, for many months without success, to see it. It kept being shown at those one-night-only Fathom Events Bilge referred to, and I kept missing it, until I finally caught it on a plane this year and was gobsmacked by its conceptual simplicity and raw emotional power. However you feel about Peter Jackson’s late-period experiments with high-frame-rate filmmaking—I gave up after the first chapter of the Hobbit trilogy, having had my fill of troll beards in crystalline resolution—it’s worth seeking out this remarkable work of film restoration and historical restitution. Jackson and his team colorized and updated large quantities of painstakingly sourced WWI newsreel and home-movie footage via a variety of digital techniques, adjusting the frame rate and adding ambient sound to make images that have long read as herky-jerky History channel footage legible to the modern eye as living documents. Like Apollo 11, the stunning Todd Douglas Miller doc that reconstructed the moon landing using never-before-seen audio and video clips culled from the NASA vaults, Jackson’s documentary dispenses with the familiar framing devices of the genre (narration, talking-head interviews, explanatory titles) to plunge us directly into the past. This vision of the historical documentary as immersive time machine, making archival images more accessible and comprehensible via 21st-century technology, is a heady development in a time when that same digital trickery is too often being used not to reveal the truth but to erase it. These movies were not deepfakes but deepreals, and all the more thrilling for it.

My favorite doc of the year, though, and the only straight-up nonfiction film that made it onto my Top 10 list, was Honeyland, Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s intimate portrait of a Macedonian beekeeper. Hatidze, surely among the most unforgettable real-life “characters” of the year, is a dauntless and buoyant woman in her mid-50s who lives with her elderly mother in a near-abandoned farming village and makes a living collecting wild honey in the nearby mountains to sell in town. Like Parasite, Honeyland becomes the story of two families in competition for limited resources who are both, in ways they can’t always see for themselves, subjected to the systemic violence of the structure that surrounds them. It’s one of those documentaries, always irresistible to me, that capture an ancient way of life just before the moment of its inevitable disappearance. (Sweetgrass, a 2010 film about the vanishing tradition of shepherding in Montana, was another of this kind—I could, and should, rewatch that and Honeyland every year to shore up my empathy, humanity, and appreciation for the fragility of our dependence on the bounty of this planet.)

Also on my list was the semidocumentary Varda by Agnès, the final film of the late French master Agnès Varda, which like much of her work sits somewhere on the line between fiction and nonfiction. No, “sits” is the wrong word; Varda’s work dances on that border, finding ways to play with even the most serious ideas, including the prospect of her own coming disappearance from the world she so evidently loved. Her last dispatch is essentially a two-hour master class that frames clips from her earlier movies with scenes of Varda talking: sometimes to a live audience at an event, sometimes addressing the camera directly, sometimes in conversation with former collaborators like the actress Sandrine Bonnaire. But “master class” sounds so much more staid and less fun than what Varda by Agnès is. Nine months after her loss it’s still hard to write in the past tense about Varda, who at age 90 was not just making great movies but questioning—on camera, in her own voice and face and characteristic mop of two-tone hair—what it meant to keep making them over the course of a career that spanned seven decades.

Docs, under-the-radar small films, foreign films, anything you feel like you loved more than anyone else this year and feel a moral calling to champion—those are the movies I’d love to hear about in this next round. Though if the spirit moves you to wax rhapsodic on, say, John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum, one of the top-grossing franchise blockbusters of the year and one that I see made Bilge’s capacious Top 20, that would be glorious too.

Yours in honey,

Read the next dispatch here.