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Director Mike Leigh talks Peterloo's increasing relevance, the artist, and democracy


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I chatted with Mike Leigh in Leeds, where he was attending the Leeds International Film Festival, hot on the tail of Peterloo’s premiere at the HOME cinema in Manchester. “Yeah it was great. It was part of the London Film Festival – but in Manchester. It was a very inspired move on somebody’s part to do that. It was great.” Leigh’s assistant had been eager to inform me before the interview that the premiere was specially held in Manchester despite being part of the BFI London Film Festival, and that this was no mean feat.

I got the impression that Mike (can I refer to an OBE, promethean figure in British drama by first name only? Hopefully.) was incredibly incisive, with an active mind. Talking to him, perhaps because I had this article in mind at the time, one could hear the punctuation in his speech – dashes, locking onto exciting new thoughts. I’d got a sense from reading other interviews of Mike’s directness, so I asked him quite directly what his film had for young people. He was also pleasingly direct in his response: “What’s it got for young people? Well, what the film is about is the future, how we live and how we’re going to live. … I consider it a film for everybody – plainly it’s about democracy, it’s about people hearing our voice.”

Ruminating on what Peterloo means for posterity led to a stunning revelation about the composition of what I remember being a rather arresting scene. “Towards the end of the film, the night before the actual day of Peterloo, you see Nelly in bed with her husband and the grandchild. [Me: and they wonder “What’s 1900 going to be like?”] Yeah! Now we actually put that scene together, in the location, we actually wrote that scene just before we shot it, about a week away before my first grandchild being born. So, I had been reflecting during the pregnancy of my de-facto daughter-in-law, “what sort of a world is this kid, born in August 2017, going to experience in 2100?” I mean it’s almost impossible to reflect what sort of world that would be on all sorts of levels… if indeed we have a world at all at the end of this century…” Cheerful stuff!

The timing of the film’s release is of course very important, with an auspicious anniversary next year. “We made the film in order that it would be out and kicking around for 2019.” That’s the bicentenary of the Peterloo massacre, which happened in August 1819. “By the time the bicentenary happens hopefully a huge number of people will have seen it, and therefore it’ll be fresh.”

That being said though, the important historic anniversary and the film’s ‘freshness’ aren’t contradictory, as Mike explained: “You can only decode a film, it can only have any meaning for you in terms of the world as you understand it, the world we actually live in. So, although it is an inverted-commas ‘historical film’ it can of course only have relevance to us now. Interestingly enough when we decided to make the film, which was about 5 years ago, we couldn’t have guessed or anticipated how increasingly relevant it was going to become! In fact, as we started to prepare it, on a daily basis, we found ourselves saying “this is actually really relevant!” I mean just in today’s news, I’ve just been reading the Guardian,” – this he said, gesturing to his copy of the Guardian he’d brought with him – “it would seem there was massive interference [in the Brexit referendum], money came for the leave campaign from all sorts of dodgy sources.”

Despite its historical setting, Peterloo does indeed feel present, urgently so. I referred to one of the film’s most rousing aspects, its powerful renditions of the period’s oratory performances of barn-storming rhetoricians, relating it to recent events, and asked Mike what he thought of the uses and dangers of effective rhetoric. “Hitler was a brilliant speechmaker,” Mike said, getting alarmingly close to the point very quickly, “actually so is Trump. The fact that shit comes out of their mouths is, you know, that’s how those tools are used. A hammer is a useful tool, but you can use it for destructive purposes. You can break things with it.” An apt philosopher, immediately breaking a phenomenon down into its essence, and from that its potential uses. “So rhetoric, of course, it’s great to hear - we’ve taken some of the real speeches and obviously used them in the film, and you know it’s great to hear people putting arguments from the heart, that they really care about and believe in and, you know, the truth in it, but you know, at the same time – rhetoric can be used negatively.”

Neil Bell, John-Paul Hurley, Philip Jackson, Rory Kinnear, and Tom Gill in Peterloo (2018)

Mike Leigh has a truly epic filmography stretching almost five decades, and that’s alongside an equally epic stage history, and though he says Peterloo is the first of his films which “directly deals with political issues”, all of his work is in some way political:  “it’s the responsibility of the artist to deal with society and to reflect society and therefore by definition you have a political responsibility, however that’s interpreted.

“You don’t make films if you don’t in some way want to communicate things … any film I make, I would hope that in some way, it makes people laugh, would inform their lives, would enrich their lives, otherwise you might as well not make a film. You’re making a film: you’re communicating. In some ways you’re sharing.”

“If you’re saying, ‘what massive change to the world would I expect this film to make?’, that’s a question with no answer. Plainly, it’s a film that invites serious reflection and consideration and debate and meditation on a whole lot of things.” This led us to discuss the thoughts behind the film’s somewhat abrupt ending, which eschews the usual biographical text-crawl at the end of most historical films – “I don’t put up slogans that tell you what happens next ‘cause I think that would dissipate the space you need to just digest what you’ve seen. I debated that quite a lot, but then I thought, you know what, it ends in such a specific place emotionally and [the audience] have been through all this, and there’s a lot to take away and digest – and if you want to know what happened next, you can press the button and go to Wikipedia or whatever you want, and go to the library or whatever,” rather than allowing Peterloo to “degenerate into a rather dry history lesson.”

Mike was very adamant about this democratic role to the director’s craft. “I’ve never been in the business of saying ‘think this’. My films always end with a lot for you to go away and ponder, and this film is actually no exception. And it’s implicit in what the film is that here is something that happened, that has to have a meaning for us, and that is the legacy.”

Kate Rutter in Peterloo (2018)

This appeal to objectivity brought to mind the objective-lens stance I highlighted in my review, and from there I thought of something about Peterloo that might appear more interpreted. The upper-class characters, you see, were just so repulsive that I had to find out whether they were getting a fair, accurate hearing or whether they were being demonised, and the answer only makes Peterloo the more horrifying.

“Well, I mean, you’re repulsed by what they’re doing. I mean – the three scenes early in the film where you see the magistrates sending people to, in one case to the rope, to hang, for taking a coat, and somebody being sent to Australia – all of those cases, all of those magistrates were actual guys that existed, and we’ve studied them and brought them to life. So, in other words, that is an actual representation of what actually happened. What’s repulsive, and disgusting, is how people, one human being is treating another. How they behave, and how we rendered the characterisations, is drawn from all kinds of sources about how people are and how people were. So, in many ways they’re alien to us, but you wouldn’t have to look very far to find people like that in positions of power, now in the 21st Century.”

“See, the truth of the matter is, we don’t heroise anybody, and actually we don’t demonise anybody either. We look at them as people, people good, bad, and indifferent. You might have been saying ‘why don’t you heroise people?’ and we don’t do either of those things. There’s no demonising either.  So, it’s the same thing. The bottom line is, that we are looking at people as they are, warts and all.”

Peterloo is out in cinemas now, distributed by eOne Entertainment. 

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