Peterloo: Director Mike Leigh Doesn’t Play It Safe With His 19th Century Period Drama

To make Peterloo—my new film based on the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, during which tens of thousands of Manchester natives were attacked by government militias for demanding Parliamentary reform and expanded voting rights—I took exactly the same approach as with my other period films.

Like Topsy-Turvy and Mr. Turner, I knew that I would be breathing life into people I read about who actually existed. No matter how much research you do, you still have to create characters in an organic, three-dimensional way so that they live in front of the camera.

So, my way of preparing to make each character and event “real” was with improvisation. In the end, both improvisation and the scripting process are there to serve the film— whatever the film is. Some of my films were made “naked,” and we invented the whole concept, which created and evolved the story. But with Peterloo, we were drawing from history, and with that, there are things that we invented. The overall result is a distillation, or reconstruction, of events—that’s the job.

Telling the story of Joseph (David Moorst), a soldier who developed post-traumatic stress disorder from the Battle of Waterloo four years prior to Peterloo’s political upheaval, didn’t require any long, complicated sequences that go into elaborate detail. Joseph’s story is not about anything other than the battle—not a bloke getting into his car driving down the street, or a man or woman eating breakfast in a flat. It’s about the Battle of Waterloo, so that’s what happens. Our battle sequence is all in one shot, and it’s down to the essence of what’s going on, to give a sense of his point of view.

The film revolves around radical grassroots activists after the Battle of Waterloo. Photographs by Simon Mein, Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Still, Peterloo is the only film I’ve made in which there is no definitive central character. Everything in moviemaking is an aesthetic choice, and that choice is purely a function of the film’s content. Peterloo is about an event that involved a lot of people across a widespread social spectrum, so it would be irrelevant and counterproductive to make any of the film’s characters speak in a contrived, artificial way in order to make one the central character in the story. That’s not what the film is about.

Somebody asked me whether Peterloo particularly references Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Akira Kurosawa. The truth is, it doesn’t. I don’t look at films as referents when I’m making my films, because in the end I’m not into pastiche. I don’t make films about films. That isn’t to say, however, that Eisenstein and Kurosawa are not there in my DNA. I’ve also read a lot of 19th century literature—some of which, such as books by Elizabeth Gaskell, resonate with the period depicted in Peterloo. When you embark on a project that’s historical in nature, one door of research opens another door, and a picture starts to form.

Most important, though, was that we had a historian, Dr. Jacqueline Riding, as part of our film crew. Somebody like that on your team will know where to look, how to select elements to include in your story, and what archives will be most useful to your research. The banners carried by activists at their public demonstration, for instance, drew from all kinds of sources that allowed our production team to recreate the actual designs on which they’re based. Looking at paintings of the so-called Regency Period of English art history, and the work of such great English caricaturists as Thomas Rowlandson, George Cruikshank, and James Gillray, was especially helpful, too, when it came to realizing how our film would depict members of the royal family.

We also had to embrace that this is a film about grassroots politics, and we knew that intelligent audiences would have to be able to go along with that. That meant exploring different levels and nuances to our “radical” characters. There are the middle-class radicals—respectable, cautious. Then, there are the young, working-class radicals, who really want a revolution. Peterloo depicts a time in English history when the memory of the French Revolution cast a shadow across everything, and served as an inspiration to these radicals. A lot of the various speeches given in the film draw from actual speeches that were given, to tell the story of how the government’s fear of revolution was what motivated them most.

Many people in the northwest of England in the Manchester area, myself included, grew up not knowing about the events we depict in Peterloo. It’s not that it wasn’t all documented, but it happens that we weren’t taught about it in school. Why we weren’t is one of the great mysteries that I’ll never know the answer to.

My goal, then, is for a 21st century audience to be able to digest Peterloo from our modern perspective. There’s no way you can look at what this film’s about and merely say, “It’s an antique museum experience.” If it works for you, it will be because you were able to respond to it from an emotional place. And I didn’t make the film to make it “safe,” either. It’s there for you to walk away with a discussion—to reflect on how you can act upon your own understanding of our world. MM

— As told to Amir Ganjavie

Peterloo opens in theaters April 5, 2019, courtesy of Amazon Studios. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2019 issue. Featured image: Moviemaker Mike Leigh’s knack for historical drama shines again in Peterloo.

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