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.”
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