A symphony of expressions

Mike Leigh, to me one of the biggest directors of our time, added another opus to his filmography: Peterloo, a big production period drama focusing on the tragic events that took place in Manchester in 1819.

The movie premiered April the 5th here in Turkey, as part of the 38th Istanbul Film Festival, organized every year since 1981 by IKSV, Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts.

It’s the story of Peterloo Massacre, where royal authorities chose, instead of listening and meeting half way, to attack and kill their own people who just wanted to do a peaceful march, just to present their demands to the Parliament and to the king.

Thinking of period dramas, first thing that comes to mind is always costumes and how well any given period’s characteristics are represented. These two facts are very well present in Peterloo it goes without saying, but the thing that stroke me the most is the myriad of facial expressions that dominates the movie, operating as an additional actor. In 2017, there were news about Mike Leigh “looking for authentic northern faces which look miserable and down-trodden” for his new movie, no need to say he had found an incredible variety of them. The costumes, the set, everything is reminiscent of early 19thcentury of course, but the thing that fixes this movie to the 1800s are the facial expressions, looks and makeup that goes with them. 

The movie opens with the close-up of Joseph, a character of a certain importance in the film, showing the stress, fear and confusion in his face, to define the atrocities of the war (Waterloo). Leigh will use this opposite direction method many times to show us the misery of poverty, the effect of a political speech, the fear gaining the people or just the king, etc. And as we have said before, this method works so well, thanks to the facial expressions achieved brilliantly by the talented actors, guided of course by the master, Mike Leigh.

The film builds up systematically to its violent climax and shows various aspects of the Peterloo massacre but the political debates are mostly leading the way of thinking and feeling of the spectator. Written by Mike Leigh himself, these dialogues and monologues are the heart of the film, showing the different intellectual levels of the people and the monarchic darkness the governing are in. 

The ending dilemma

In the end, the film confirms the ridiculous state of mind the royalties have, which was shown a couple of times throughout the movie as well. But still, the absence of an end is the only thing that bothered me. Does a movie or a director is obliged to give us, present an ending on a silver plate? Well no, it’s an artistic creation and there are no rules, of course. But still, as a spectator, I had the urge, this time, to be told what history made from this tragedy. What were the effects? What was the atmosphere in the aftermath? What happened afterwards? 

The film ends with the funeral of Joseph, the boy we met at the very beginning, accompanied by the consoling words of the priest, and this is it. This open ending bothered me because if watched from a certain perspective, the movie may very well state this awful horror: “No matter what you do to claim your rights, the governing will prevail, there’s nothing you can do, so don’t bother.” This is of course NOT the message the movie nor Mike Leigh wants to give, but when there’s no ending, these “alternate messages” hang here and there. 

Well, maybe I am part of a very small spectator type that seeks a message in the end of a movie. “A movie is under no obligation to have a message” you may say, and you are right, it doesn’t have to have a message. But to me, every piece of art, every artistic creation is a message, a statement itself. Its creator may not be aware of it, but even if it doesn’t have a message, it means something. And as Umberto Eco once said, “there are as many meanings of a book as the number of its readers”. So when it comes to Peterloo, it’s one, only one of these potential meanings that bothered me. 

H. Necmi Öztürk

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