Peterloo Programme Notes


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Mike Leigh doesn’t like compromise. More to the point, Mike Leigh doesn’t do compromise. In a career that stretches back almost 50 years, the veteran British filmmaker has always done things his way. The famously intensive process he uses to develop his scripts — working for months with his actors, building characters from the ground up (and the films in the same way) — is not exactly compatible with outside interference, so he simply removes any chance for meddling at the outset, rarely discussing the subject matter of his films before they’re finished and keeping financial backers (and even members of the cast) in the dark about what, exactly, they’re going to be about.[1] As he’s made clear in interviews: he’ll walk away from a project rather than submit to the whims of others.[2]

This hasn’t changed since delving into historical filmmaking. He might have been forced to become a little more forthcoming about the general subject matter of said films — there’s research to do after all, and other filmmakers to put off tackling the same topic[3] — but whether he’s making a movie about Gilbert and Sullivan (1999’s Topsy-Turvy) or J.M.W. Turner (2014’s Mr Turner), he’s going to make it the way he sees fit or not at all.

That’s certainly true of his new film Peterloo, a historical epic dramatising one of the most shameful chapters in British history. Set in 1819, the film examines the Peterloo Massacre — a political rally in St Peter’s Field, Manchester that turned bloody when the Tory government of the day ordered the yeomanry to charge a crowd of men, women and children peacefully campaigning for parliamentary reform. Leigh grew up Salford, a few miles from the site of the massacre, but was never really taught it in school, never taken to visit the site by his teachers and found when he was making the film the ignorance surrounding the event persists to this day, with many of his cast and crew confessing they knew nothing about it.[4] The film is something of a corrective, then, and a historically dense and rigorously researched one at that.

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His unwillingness to compromise is evident in the way he fills Peterloo with scene after scene of impassioned rhetoric that risks alienating audiences the way it does some of the characters in the film. And it’s evident in the way he constructs the film as an ensemble drama with no one character functioning as an easy-to-identify-with audience surrogate. This is a film about democracy and the need to speak up and fight for it. In Leigh’s world, everyone is worthy of being heard even if being heard isn’t always possible. That’s reinforced by the casting. Established British actors such as Maxine Peak, Rory Kinnear and Tim McInnerny no more carry the film than newcomers David Moorst or Tom Merideth.

But while he gives the “multitudes” and the establishment roughly equal amounts of screen time, Leigh clearly feels no compulsion to offer a measured approach to characterisation, presenting establishment figures as grotesque caricatures of corpulent self-satisfaction and the working classes as saintly, if occasionally wretched, figures to better elicit our sympathies. If they have the whiff of condescension about them, that’s a trait of Leigh’s work from Abigail’s Party (1977) on down, though the satirical elements that seem designed to make contemporary parallels more prominent don’t seem quite as necessary in a film in which right and wrong is so clear cut. They also move Peterloo away from a grand tradition of scrupulously evenhanded docudrama filmmaking that stretches back to The Battle of Algiers (Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) and has found its modern expression in the hyper-realistic films of Paul Greengrass (see Bloody Sunday, 2002; United 93, 2006; 22 July, 2018).

But if it’s business as usual for Leigh, there are some things we haven’t really seen in his 50-year career, starting with what could technically be termed his first action sequence. Kicking off with the aftermath of Waterloo and drawing to a close with the titular massacre, Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope have attempted to show the horror of both events with a kind of  verisimilitude that, if not quite as visceral as the aforementioned Greengrass films, is nevertheless brutal and upsetting. Unflinching scenes of babies being trampled by horses, women being knocked unconscious and peaceful protesters being slashed with sabres can’t help but bring home the shocking reality of what happened on that day.

In another change for Leigh, bringing this to life required unprecedented levels of visual effects. At least 50,000 men, women and children attended the demonstration at Peterloo, but with only his principal cast and 200 extras at his disposal, Leigh turned to London-based VFX house LipSynch Post to create 90 percent of the sequence using crowd-replication software and virtual sets.[5] The latter augmented the location work, transforming Tilbury Port in Essex into Manchester circa 1819 (despite Manchester’s centrality to the film, Leigh was unable to shoot anything in the city because it had changed too much. St Peter’s Field, for instance, now houses a hotel and the city’s central library).[6] That Leigh should have embraced cutting-edge technology is hardly a surprise. He may not be working at the level of James Cameron or George Lucas, but as those pioneers of digital technology are fond of proselytising, it gives filmmakers the thing Leigh craves most: complete control.

Alistair Harkness
Film Critic, The Scotsman
November 2018



[1] John O’Mahony, ‘Acts of Faith’, The Guardian, 19 October 2002, https://www.theguardian.com/st...

[2] Alexandra Pollard, ‘Mike Leigh interview: “Intelligent, working people voted for Brexit – but what role did the truth play?”’, The Independent, 31 October, 2018; Tim Lewis, ‘“Silly Question - Mike Leigh interviewed by our readers and famous fans’, The Observer, 21 October 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/fi...

[3] Mark Lawson, ‘Mike Leigh interview: “I’m not like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, sitting there every night watching my old films”’, The Guardian, 15 January, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/fi...     

[4] Mike Leigh, ‘A Well Kept Secret’: Mike Leigh on the Peterloo Massacre, The Guardian TIFF Talks, 1 November 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/fi...

[5] Stuart Kemp, ‘How Mike Leigh’s Peterloo brought a 19th century battle to the big screen’, 18 October 2018, IBC 365, https://www.ibc.org/production...

[6] Helen Pidd, ‘Peterloo director calls for 1819 massacre to be taught in UK schools’ The Guardian, 16 August 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/fi...


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