Director Mike Leigh discusses his latest historical drama “Peterloo”
In August of 1819, 80,000 people rallied together at St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, in order to seek representation and reform. The peaceful demonstration soon turned into a frenzy, when the cavalry were ordered to enter and disrupt the people. This devolved into a violent massacre that led to hundreds of injuries and some deaths.
Growing up in Salford, a city in northern England, “Peterloo” director Mike Leigh was never taught this important piece of history in school.
“It’s a strange thing,” he said. “In the UK now, they don’t really know about it but it was ...a very important event.”
The “Peterloo” director did, however, recognize the story’s increasing relevance when he began work on the film in 2014.
“It’s about democracy, and you don’t have to look very far, just from where we’re sitting at the moment to see what can happen when democracy goes wrong,” Leigh said. “And I happen to come from a country where democracy has completely gone off the rails in a preposterous manner. We call it Brexit.”
The film deals a lot with the abuse of power, particularly by the magistrates on its people. The government at the time was considered to be more “reactionary” and “repressive,” according to Leigh. The film shows actual draconian punishments people received from the most minor offenses, including hanging and transporting prisoners to Australia for 14 years. Those were actual cases and actual punishments by the magistrates that we dramatized,” Leigh said.
A lot of these heavy themes relied on great performances by character actors like Maxine Peake or Rory Kinnear throughout the film. Leigh has always operated on a unique, improvisational style when it comes to directing actors, and a historical epic like this one is no different.
“We’ve obviously gone back to source, to the original actual speeches people made, and use those very thoroughly … it’s all been filtered through the character work we’ve done, so it’s organic,” Leigh said. “The whole process of using improvisation to make it truthful and bring it to life is still what I’ve done throughout the whole making of this film.”
This devotion to realism didn’t falter when it came to planning the dreaded day of the massacre. Leigh had to prepare extensively to bring it to life. “It took a massive amount of organization and planning, but that doesn’t mean we had storyboarding, because we didn’t. All the elements, all the different magistrates in the house, the guys on the postings, the family on the ground, other characters. I worked all those out as separate elements,” he said.
Leigh said that there were certain narrative and aesthetic decisions that were also made when shooting the massacre scene.
“For example, there were no helicopter shots. We don’t look down at people and say these are insects. We’re in that, experiencing it,” Leigh said. Once everyone’s walked to the field, the music for the rest of the film stopped, he said.
The film could be described as a passionate rallying cry, but Leigh said that he is never interested in telling the audience what to think.
“I’m not really in the business, I don’t make films that tell you that, say, think this,” he said. “Before we ever get to the day of the Peterloo massacre, you’ve seen a lot of different stuff going on, with complexity. And finally I take you to an emotion … I leave you to be sad, angry, to reflect, discuss, etc.”
Leigh is also reluctant in telling audiences what to think because he doesn’t want to fall into “the trap of making slick, reductionist, sloganizing summaries.” Fortunately, “Peterloo” is far from any of these.
“Peterloo” will be released in a limited engagement and Prime Video April 5.
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