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Film Peterloo director Mike Leigh aims at decoding history in terms of how we live today

British filmmaker Mike Leigh is seen during an interview in London, U.K., on Oct. 26, 2018.

BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

The first thing you do after scheduling an interview with Mike Leigh is research. The second: panic.

The 76-year-old British filmmaker, famed for his largely improvised kitchen-sink dramas such as Secrets & Lies and Happy-Go-Lucky, carries a notorious reputation for being prickly with the press. Nearly every interview with the director is laced with Leigh’s acidic impatience, and it is routine for publicists to caution journalists that if he shuts a question down, it’s best to keep moving rather than risk incurring his incredulity.

With that in mind, I was prepared for anything during my interview with Leigh for his latest and easily most ambitious production: Peterloo. The historical drama reconstructs how British troops turned a 1819 pro-democracy rally in Manchester’s St. Peter’s Field into a massacre, a relatively little-known atrocity that carries with it more than a few prescient lessons for the current Brexit era. Yet unlike Peterloo, which is everything a Leigh completist could hope for, my phone call with the director didn’t quite live up to expectations. For whatever reasons – timing, disposition, the fact that the filmmaker was about to catch Peterloo co-star Maxine Peake’s new play at the Barbican in London – Leigh was more tamed pussycat than raging bull.

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Peterloo is a historical drama on how British troops turned a 1819 pro-democracy rally in Manchester’s St. Peter’s Field into a massacre.

Simon Mein/Amazon Studios / Courtesy of Mongrel Media

Here, ahead of Peterloo’s Canadian release this Friday, the director reflects on history, ambition and when it’s okay to walk away.

After watching Peterloo, I found myself racing to the history books. How much of it did you learn while growing up in Manchester, so close to where it happened?

It’s a strange and complicated thing. We weren’t taught about it in school, and nobody explained what it was. Yet it resonated throughout the 19th century, and for those who know about it, it’s a landmark event.

When did you decide that this was a story that you needed to tell?

Sometime in the late sixties, I read quite comprehensively about it and thought: Somebody ought to make a movie about this! But it never occurred to me at that point in time that it might be me. I was making contemporary films, but then when we made Mr. Turner in 2014, I thought, well, the bicentenary of this event is coming up, and I felt that there were things about it that were going to be relevant. And we were right. But we couldn’t have anticipated in 2014 just how mad the world would go in the half-decade that’s elapsed since.

What do you think the job or responsibility is of a period film in speaking to issues of today?

There are two main things about period films. One is that I regard my job as being able to go as far as I can as to accuracy on all aspects of what you see on the screen: the behaviour of characters, the language, the look, the costumes. So that the audience can believe that this is a real thing that’s happening. But the other thing is that you can only decode or interpret history in terms of the world that we know, and what we understand about life. The question of relevance, as it were, looks after itself. You don’t have to strive to make it relevant, because we can only interpret and decode what we see in terms of how we live today.

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There’s also a moment midway through the film when one woman tells a crowd of pro-democracy organizers, “I can’t understand a thing you’re saying.” Was that your own wink to the audience that some of these discussions are dense, but necessary to have?

It’s not really a wink. There’s just a great deal of talk that goes on in the movie, and some people talk in an articulate and educated way, and some not. It seemed to be a very real and ordinary thing to say, “I don’t understand what you’re talking about.” I don’t regard it as a wink, more so one of many details that makes it human and real.

Alicia Turner, left, as Sarah and Maxine Peak as Nellie in a scene from Peterloo.

Simon Mein/Amazon Studios / Courtesy of Mongrel Media

I’ve read that you conducted an immense amount of research for this, but how do you balance that with creating a narrative, with creating natural drama?

It’s about taking from those sources and assimilating them into the organic material. As with all my films, I don’t start with a conventional script. I spend six months doing the research so that we can go in and location-scout and construct the film, and we also do improvisation. Making a film about 200 years ago is like making a film about the day before yesterday. By which I mean if I was being eccentric enough to make a film about the fifth or sixth or seventh century, it’d be more difficult to access how life was like then. But 200 years ago, it’s all there in the archives: in newspapers, speeches, novels, plays. It’s all there to draw on. You simply have to go there and find it.

By spending so much time on rehearsal and improv, how does it work with a film on this scale, with so many characters?

It’s a bigger job, but the same job. It’s just that much more spread out. What’s unprecedented for me is dealing with the battle scene. Well, I’ve done lots of battle scenes, it’s just that most of them have been between two or three people on a suburban staircase. But it’s the same thing on a grander scale. You just work it through and make it happen.

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Do you only want to go larger after this?

Well, the truth of the matter is we just cooked up a year of trying to raise money for another film and have not been very successful in doing so. I’d like to do something on a large scale, but I’m not going to discuss what. It depends on how much money we can get. This film is what it is, and demands what it demands. There are certainly subjects to deal with that involve a lot of people, and it’s just a question of resources.

This is your first film with Amazon Studios. How have you found working with them, given it’s a relatively new player in the film world?

They were brand-new when we went out to find money to make this film, and we ran into them pretty soon when we were out with the begging bowl. I have to say they were immaculate in their behaviour and never interfered with the concept, in casting, in anything. When I took it to New York to show them the final cut, and it was running 18 minutes over what it is now, we thought they’d say chop it, but they said go with it.

Is that unprecedented in your career, in terms of a financier being so hands off?

No. I’ve made 21 full-length films and no one has interfered with any of them. So it’s totally precedented. It’d be unprecedented if anybody did do that. I’m very cautious. I make sure that when I get into a situation it’s guaranteed that no one will interfere. The minute there’s a suggestion that anyone’s going to do so, I walk away.

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There’s a line midway through Peterloo when Maxine Peake’s character is watching her daughter sleep, and says, “In 1900, she’ll be 85, and I hope it’ll be a better world for her.” You just had a grandson, so in 85 years, what do you imagine his life will be like?

That’s the conundrum. When I was preparing that scene, my grandson was due to be born a week later. He’s a healthy one-and-a-half-year-old kid now, but I’d been thinking precisely that. I see this little lad puttering around now, and I’m filled with optimism and joy. And then I see what’s happening in this world and I’m filled with some kind of pessimism. And I worry. There is a conflict between these two very basic feelings, and it’s a conundrum, and that’s all I have to say about it, really.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Peterloo opens May 17 in Toronto and May 31 in Montreal.

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