Peterloo sees Mike Leigh tackle a dark mo­ment in Bri­tish his­tory


WHEN DI­REC­TOR MIKE Leigh was grow­ing up in sub­ur­ban Salford, he had no idea he lived a mile or so away from the site of a defin­ing mo­ment in Bri­tish democ­racy. Save for “about four brief sec­onds of O-level his­tory in 1959”, Leigh knew noth­ing about the Peterloo mas­sacre of 1819, which saw up to 80,000 peace­ful re­formist pro­tes­tors at­tacked by cav­alry, leav­ing at least 15 dead and around 700 in­jured. Peterloo, the first film to be made about the event, aims to shine a light on a for­got­ten chap­ter on the road to demo­cratic re­form.

It’s an am­bi­tious un­der­tak­ing for a di­rec­tor known for kitchen-sink re­al­ism, with his big­gest bud­get to date. But Leigh shrugs off the jump in scale. “Whether it’s a film about three peo­ple ar­gu­ing with each other on a stair­case in a sub­ur­ban semi-de­tached, or whether it’s about a huge num­ber of peo­ple do­ing what they did at Peterloo, in the end, it’s still all about char­ac­ter and de­tail.”

Pro­vid­ing that de­tail was most chal­leng­ing when it came to the film’s har­row­ing cli­mac­tic mas­sacre, which took six weeks to film, util­is­ing hun­dreds of ex­tras and dozens of stunt­men on horse­back; the film’s his­tor­i­cal con­sul­tant, Jac­que­line Rid­ing, con­sulted ex­tras be­fore each scene “so they could be mo­ti­vated in what they were ac­tu­ally do­ing, rather than just be­ing lemons in front of the cam­era,” as Leigh puts it. Mean­while, Peterloo’s themes of work­ing peo­ple de­mand­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and the role of the press, have never been time­lier. “The in­ter­est­ing thing is,” says Leigh, “in the four-and-a-half years since we started work­ing on the film, it grad­u­ally seemed to be­come more pre­scient and rel­e­vant, al­most on a daily ba­sis.”

1819, Leigh notes, was a year of rad­i­cal change. So was 1919. “Will 2019 be an­other great year of crises?”


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