“It vaguely occurred to me to make the film quite a long time ago,” director, Mike Leigh, said at The Venice Film Festival, where his historical epic, Peterloo, made its debut., “but then I forgot all about it. But the interesting thing is that I, and a bunch of people who grew up in the north, in Manchester, really didn’t know about it. It’s Manchester’s best-kept secret, for some reason that’s very, very worrying to speculate. I mean, I could get the bus from where I grew up and, in 15 minutes, walk about where it happened. But… not a word.”
Peterloo is Mike Leigh’s bold stab at an historical epic, but this is no Lawrence Of Arabia or El Cid. The film portrays the events surrounding the infamous but now little discussed 1819 Peterloo Massacre, where a peaceful pro-democracy rally at St Peter’s Field in Manchester turned into one of the most violent and tragic episodes in British history. With shocking vigour, British government forces charged into a crowd of over 60,000 men, women and children that had gathered to demand political reform and protest against rising levels of poverty. The body count was alarming, with many protestors killed and hundreds more injured. National debate raged after the event, but government suppression continued.
Despite its historical underpinnings, the film has powerful resonances with regard to the current political climate both in England and internationally. “The two things that come out of any research into Peterloo are that it was an inspiration for radical movements and that it scared the shit out of the authorities,” Leigh said at Venice. “It’s about voices being heard. And with the rise of the far right all over the place, and the results of democracy – which you see in the UK with Brexit and in the States with the election of Trump – it calls all kinds of things into question, about truth, and how people express themselves. I find it difficult to draw straight, cartoon-like political parallels. But you can see that – in terms of people’s needs, the haves, the have-nots, the people with power and the people who don’t have power – it resonates across the board.”
The film is typically dark and difficult, and though epic in scope, it fits tightly within Mike Leigh’s filmography. Happy and Leigh are not two words that you’d normally find in the same sentence. Mention his name, and people instantly mark him as the maker of gloomy, dour, depressing films. It’s why his work is often labelled “miserablist”. His debut feature, Bleak Moments (1971), gave a hint of what was to come. The story, about a woman who looks after her mentally disabled sister, more than lived up to its title. Meantime (1984) is an equally dark, brooding tale, this time about burgeoning unemployment in Britain.
The incendiary Naked (1988), which was nominated for a BAFTA and effectively launched Leigh’s career, is an oppressively grim portrait of self-loathing and urban malaise. “People seem to have amnesia when it comes to the films that I’ve made,” says Leigh, clearly feeling a little misunderstood. “I’m not just in the business of making people believe and care and all those sorts of things, but laugh as well. I’ve always been committed to confronting people, but entertaining them as well.”
Over the years, much has been made of the way that Leigh works. He doesn’t bother with a screenplay, but instead takes his kernel of an idea and assembles a group of actors who agree to sign up for at least six months of work-shopping and rehearsals. They typically have no idea about their character, and whether they’re a lead or a supporting actor, or how the characters will interact with each other. It’s only through a process of improvisation and workshops that the story is discovered. Leigh, alone, is the master puppeteer.
Typically, the most difficult part of the process, says the director, is “establishing” the film and deciding where to end it. “Sometimes it’s very clear where it should go and how it should end. Sometimes, in the case of this film, the end was an open question,” Leigh told FilmInk. “The famous one was Naked. I couldn’t decide how to end it. In a way, the truth of the matter is that it’s academic. People always ask me questions like, ‘When did you decide this? At what stage did you decide that?’ It doesn’t matter. Nobody says to the famous painter, ‘That little dot on the eye of the Mona Lisa – when did you decide to do that?’”
Leigh has been working this way since 1965, ever since he directed his first theatrical production The Box Play in the Midlands. He came up with the idea of combining the writing and rehearsal process, primarily because “I didn’t like sitting alone in a room for months on end,” he says. But there was more to it than that. Leigh was obsessed with depicting reality, and not make-believe.
Raised in Salford, Manchester, his outlook on life was forged as a youth among the grim, industrial landscape that surrounded him. It was a world not unlike the settings of his films, where “comedy and tragedy went hand in hand,” he recalls. It was during one of those moments when he realised that he wanted to be a filmmaker. “When I was twelve, I was at my grandfather’s funeral on a very cold snowy day in Manchester, and everyone was standing in the hall. As the old guys with the coffin came down a steep narrow staircase, I remember thinking that this would make a great film. I was always thinking like that, even when the most tragic events were unfolding.”
At seventeen, Leigh moved to London and saw his first non-English language film. He originally studied as an actor at RADA from 1960-62 before switching track and studying at the Camberwell and Central Art Colleges and The London Film School. He started in theatre, before moving on to television, and instantly his penchant for creating accurately observed texts through improvisation that examined the everyday reality of working class or lower middle class Brits was born. “When I first moved to London, I remember having access to all this wonderful cinema, and I used to think that it would be great if there were movies where people were actually like real people that you meet,” he laughs. “So to me, it’s about taking life and taking things and putting them on the screen.”
Like a documentary? “No,” Leigh replies. “In a way, my films aspire to the condition of the documentary. What I want to do is create a world that has solidity to it, but my instinct is to heighten things. I’m not in the business of naturalism. I’m not in the business of simply recording life exactly how it is in an unadulterated form. What I’m concerned with is finding the essences of things in some way. What I’m after is heightened realism, if you like to put labels on things. But the motivating source of what I do is the world that’s out there, if that makes any sense. By definition, real people are more interesting than made-up people,” he adds. “My job is to find the most interesting, idiosyncratic, unique ones, and put them on the screen in their appropriate context. On the whole, it’s been a very productive thing to do, so I don’t see any reason to do anything else.”
And he has the BAFTAs and the Oscar nominations to prove it. It’s a method that remains unique to Leigh, and consequently his films bristle with an authenticity and life quite unlike any other human dramas. But it’s a gruelling process for all involved. Is it a joyful process as well? “The joy and the pleasure of the whole experience is not those six months where we’re locked away in rehearsals,” he says. “They’re purgatory, because in that period what I’m doing is making the raw materials. I’m not actually creating the artifact itself. At the end of the day, all films are made in the cutting room. So when you shoot the film, you’re simply shooting raw material to take to the cutting room. For me, making a film is a journey of discovering what the film is by actually making it.”
Despite its more epic brand of storytelling, Peterloo was also created in Leigh’s typical style. “This was no more or less organised than any of my other productions,” Leigh told Indiewire. “Despite its scale, it is as much a film about individuals as it is about community and society. My normal way of working applies. We are serving and interpreting and distilling actual historical events, added to created and invented scenarios.”
Though his films – including Peterloo – are famously bleak and uncompromising, Leigh has made comedies, and there are indeed moments that are warm and wonderful among them, but even his “lighter” films are born out of despair and tragedy. They tend to leave you feeling slightly depressed rather than uplifted. 1996’s Secrets & Lies (his much acclaimed and highly successful follow-up to Naked) was hilarious, but also horrifying at times. 2002’s All Or Nothing did have warm, fuzzy moments, but it hardly left you feeling like that, given that its characters battle with depression. When his films make you feel good, it’s usually because you realise that your life isn’t that bad after all. In Leigh’s world, humour is a way to cope with life’s curve balls. As Brenda Blethyn’s character says in Secrets & Lies, “you have to laugh, otherwise you’d cry.”
Says Mike Leigh: “I defy anyone to come out of Secrets & Lies [about a white mother who finds out that she has a black daughter], or [1999’s] Topsy-Turvy [about the composing collaborators Gilbert & Sullivan], with its abundance of song and dance routines, without feeling warm and hopeful. [Leigh’s cheeriest film, 2008’s] Happy-Go-Lucky is not a departure. My films are not completely grim. What they are is rooted in the real world where both good and bad things happen. It’s simplistic to reduce them to being just happy or just sad. I aspire to be fulfilled, and all those things, and making a film like this is a fulfilling thing to do. Happy-Go-Lucky is not about happiness per se. In this context, plainly happiness is about fulfillment, about connecting, about sharing. It’s a film about love. It’s about feeling that life is worth living.”
The need to feel that life is worth living drives Leigh’s new film, Peterloo, which showcases a community’s desperation for justice, as well as the strong bonds that hold one particular family together. It’s also not Leigh’s first film to use history to comment on today’s society. With 2004’s Vera Drake, he explored the grim subject of illegal abortions in the 1950s. “This is not a film that is dealing with a remote, esoteric and historical issue,” he told FilmInk on the release of Vera Drake. “These issues are entirely of concern to us now. In this world – with its ever-increasing population, its collapsing morals, and the whole question of unwanted babies – the issue is very much with us. The debate about abortion is very widespread in the world. It’s a contemporary issue and I’m dealing with it from a contemporary perspective, but through the prism of 1950.”
On his last film – 2014’s Mr. Turner, a biopic of famed English 19th Century landscape painter, J.M.W. Turner – Leigh also tackled a piece of history rarely explored on film. “There are a whole lot of movies about painters,” the director told FilmInk upon the film’s release. “There isn’t one about Turner, and I thought that it was about time that we made one. He’s a very interesting character. He’s a great eccentric. He’s a vulnerable person. I thought that he would be a great candidate for a character in a Mike Leigh film! Also, the tension between him and this epic, profound stuff that he painted is fascinating.”
Interestingly in hindsight, Leigh revealed to FilmInk during the Mr. Turner interview that he still hankered after doing something on “quite a big scale” – something that’s not just a kitchen sink drama with a handful of people. So, will he do it, we asked? “I wouldn’t put it past me,” Leigh smiled in reply. The broad canvas Peterloo is the obvious result of that ambition. “It’s a massive collaboration with a group of intelligent and committed people pulling in the same direction,” Leigh told Indiewire. “In the massacre scene, we have avoided falling into many movie cliches. It’s important that we are constantly seeing individuals doing things, even though there’s mass activity going on.”
And while Peterloo might technically be Mike Leigh’s “biggest” film, it’s also one of his most thoughtful and pointed. “It’s about democracy,” he said after a screening of the film at The Toronto Film Festival. “I want to leave you engaged with your emotions, feelings of sorrow, sympathy and anger. It was iniquitous what happened. Here is democracy in action, here are genuine hopes that come out of genuine things in people’s lives. To be dealt with in this destructive, chaotic, blind, insensitive, self-serving way by people in power – all those things remain resonant, as far as I’m concerned.”
Peterloo is released in cinemas on May 16.