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?”