“Medicine, law, business, engineering ... These are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love ... These are what we stay alive for.”—Robin Williams as John Keating in Dead Poets Society
I like to think that the above line from Dead Poets Society resonated with me when I first saw the film because I already held the conviction myself. Maybe the scene put some of my own thoughts into words. One way or the other, the sentiment has been with me for a long time now. In those halcyon days it was a hopeful sentiment. An idealistic belief in things of greater importance than the paycheck world to which most of us become prisoners. Still, there’s an inherent sadness in any notion that pushes back against the tide of accepted conventions and traditions, and this idea that we are alive for more than labor and advancement has taken on an especially hopeless aspect for me in these anti-intellectual times of ours.
Nothing could have reminded me more powerfully that this is a deeply rooted battle for our species than Mike Leigh’s 2018 film Peterloo. It tells the story of the Manchester uprising of 1819 that had as its central cause the fraught and age-old conflict between the greed of comfortable men and the discontent of the working poor. It’s impossible not to think about Brexit and the American insurrection of January 6, 2022, while watching Leigh’s epic period drama, and equally impossible to find much hope that such political tug-of-wars will ever be won or lost for good. Whether you focus on the reformers of Peterloo as being analogous to the Occupy movement of a decade ago or you see the military and establishment goons of the film as representative of the MAGA horde of present day America, or the pro-Brexit contingent of the United Kingdom, you will find yourself drawing comparisons between the early 19th-century Lancashire setting of the film and our modern world.
But Peterloo isn’t merely a cautionary tale for our times. On a deeper level it’s a film about the very nature of human violence across time, and it constantly forces viewers to ask uncomfortable questions, or questions with uncomfortable answers: Can the violent impulse be civilized out of the human story, or is it our cross to bear until our species no longer draws breath? Can we trust to nonviolence as a philosophy, or does such idealism simply make us easy targets for the better armed? Where does preparedness leave off and paranoia mixed with cowardice take hold?
Not only is Peterloo a layered drama that works both as a very specific look at a horrible historic event in northern England and as a film with broad social associations for a modern audience; it’s also a beautifully shot work of art. The term art is especially apt here, too. There are at least a dozen scenes in the film that are lit and photographed to emulate the quality of oil paintings, not for the purpose of emphasizing that what we’re seeing is of the past but to remind us that we’re seeing the relevance of the past brought to life. It’s not the first film to adopt such a stylistic approach, but I can’t think of one that achieves the effect as magnificently as Peterloo.
I haven’t kept up on Mike Leigh’s work habits in recent years, but my guess was that for a film like this he must have abandoned his tried-and-true method of arriving at a final script through intensive improvisational rehearsals with his cast. I simply didn’t see how that could have been possible with a film of this complexity, or one as removed from modern ways of speaking. It turns out I was wrong, according to IndieWire. The Mike Leigh method would appear to be alive and well.
So watch this captivating film, and while you do, look ahead to the next break in the cycle, when there will again be an opportunity for us to stem the tide of inequity in all its ugly forms. Or make yourself some popcorn and take in the further unraveling of the unmet promise of the human race. The call is yours.