Mike Leigh: Provocateur

May 16, 2019
With Mike Leigh’s politically charged Peterloo in cinemas now, we look at the director’s most provocative and socially focused films.

PETERLOO (2019) The most obviously political of all his films, Mike Leigh’s Peterloo portrays the events surrounding the infamous but now little discussed 1819 Peterloo Massacre, where a peaceful pro-democracy rally in Manchester turned into a bloody blight on the pages of England’s history books. With excessive force, British government forces charged into a crowd of over 60,000 men, women and children asking for political reform and protesting against the poverty then gripping the nation. Many protestors were killed and hundreds more injured. Though steeped in history, Leigh stages the film as a powerful comment on the political and social issues currently dissecting an increasingly fractured England.

NAKED (1993) One of Leigh’s most famous films, Naked plays out like an extended hate letter to the world at large. As the anarchic, hyper-intelligent and rather loathsome Johnny (a homeless misanthrope who camps out in the house of his absent ex-girlfriend and terrorises all around him), then-little-known David Thewlis was a screen-scorching revelation, delivering one of the all-time seminal pieces of British screen acting. His performance is a battering symphony of cruelty and malevolence, yet Thewlis somehow manages to find a minute kernel of humanity in this bullying rapist, which is no mean feat indeed. His long speeches decrying the world around him are unforgettable in their bilious invention.

VERA DRAKE (2004) Though quiet, subdued, and wholly character based, Vera Drake – unquestionably one of Mike Leigh’s best films – is also one of the director’s angriest and most political works. The tale of Imelda Staunton’s titular 1950s housewife – who also performs secret, illegal abortions for poor girls who find themselves “in trouble” – the film rails with seething fury at the injustices of both the British legal system and its equally entrenched class structure. While its curiously saintly title character holds the film together, it’s the political convictions of Vera Drake that really burrow their way into your heart.

ALL OR NOTHING (2002) Funny, downbeat and rightfully acclaimed, All Or Nothing is not fiery or aggressive, but rather takes the form of a kind of cinematic paean to the pain and suffering of England’s underclasses. Tracking the ground-down Bassett family (led by mini-cab driving dad, Phil, played by brilliant Leigh regular, Timothy Spall), the film loves them for all their flaws and foibles, while also taking aim at the British class system. With Mike Leigh in more wise, forgiving form, All Or Nothing provokes in a far quieter but no less powerful fashion that some of his previous work.

CAREER GIRLS (1997) Ostensibly the tale of two uni friends who reunite after a separation of six years, Career Girls was also a sly attempt on Leigh’s behalf to tackle the yuppie phenomenon, which was of course introduced during the Thatcher years in the UK. The film concerns two women (played with vivid spirt by two wonderful Mike Leigh regulars, Alison Steadman – the director’s now ex-wife – and the late, great Katrin Cartlidge) riding the prevailing “greed is good” tide who ultimately betray not just each other, but also their own ideals. Though often funny and deeply human and Leigh’s typically bruising way, Career Girls takes more than a few pot-shots at the perils of capitalism.

Peterloo is in cinemas now. Click here for our review and interview with Mike Leigh.

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