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Interview: ‘Peterloo’ Director Mike Leigh Talks Weighty Political Issues, Trump, ‘Roma’

Seasoned awards watchers and world cinema lovers gleefully react at the mention of lauded British director, Mike Leigh. His latest film, “Peterloo,” (currently in theaters), is the latest of his dozen or so movies, dating back to the 1980s. Unlike his prior work, however, Leigh has for the first time retold actual historical events. “Peterloo” covers the lesser-known “Massacre of Peterloo” in 1810s Manchester. The revolt was the product of unrest in British society over wages and the cost of living. We recently praised the film for its methodological patience and its subversively deliberate style.

Last week, we had a chance to speak to Leigh about his new film. The immensely talented, razor-sharp director gave us insight not just into his creative process but also his mind. Read on as we discuss U.S. politics, his view of films such as “Roma,” and the future of humanity itself.

Leigh on His Style and Contemporary Times

As we said in our review, “Peterloo” is a “hyper-realistic”-styled movie. Every detail is recreated as faithfully as possible. Already, in fiction pieces like “Happy-Go-Lucky” and “Vera Drake,” not to mention his Oscar winner and Best Picture nominee “Secrets and Lies,” Leigh approaches his subject matter with careful realism. Hyperbole or sensationalism do not figure. The audience feels intimately connected to the piece. “I do not consider this a style,” Leigh says. “The job is to portray what happened, or what we think happened, as accurately as possible. It is not purposefully cramped to create a sense of suffocation. It is cramped. That’s how they lived.”

“Peterloo” deals with an epic, timeless struggle: between the haves and the have-nots. The rich compare to keep the poor oppressed. The middle-class revolts against their push down. It is all too familiar to the stories we read about every day today. But, Leigh began filming in 2014. He could not have possibly known this topic would be so relevant when the movie came out. “I did not have a crystal ball,” he quipped. “But, as we were writing it and working on it we began to think ‘wow,’ this is going to be more and more timely. That was a nice surprise. But, there is no divination of the future. Although I did have drinks with a friend the other day who told me ‘he’s going to win.'” After I asked him who “he” was, he said: “What other he could we be talking about? Donald Trump of course.” I asked him, to no avail, about what the crystal ball said about Brexit.

There is a dark pall of sadness or resignation in many of Leigh’s films, and “Peterloo” is certainly no exception. In light of that, we asked him what his outlook on the future of the world was. Dark, or optimistic? “It is hard not to have a pessimistic outlook,” he admitted. “You look at what is happening around us and you worry about the health of humanity and the planet. But, on the other hand, it is hard not to see my newborn grandson smiling at me and feel optimistic. It is in that constant struggle that we find some inspiration for our art,” the filmmaker said.

The Complex Relations Between World Cinema and Audiences

One of the things that will undoubtedly jump out to many film fans is the length of “Peterloo.” It is over 150 minutes long, nearly twice the length of what most moviegoers prefer to endure today. We asked him whether, in light of the 280 character world, the play-and-pause Netflix generation, and the product coming out of “the industry,” he thought there would still be audiences for movies like his, or what his outlook was. What you mean when you say ‘the industry’ is Hollywood,” Leigh clarified (correctly). “Thankfully I think that there is a robust desire for this type of film. The audience has always been more limited and will always be more limited, but it is there.”

Leigh on His Taste in Film

Leigh is an influential director in Britain and about Britain. Movies like “Another Year” (with Leslie Manville and Jim Broadbent) provide definitive modern takes on British anxiety. What does he like or what influences him? “One of my favorite films in the last few years was ‘God’s Own Country,’” he said. (The movie is about two gay farmhands who fall in love in the British countryside.). “It was a lot better than the other gay love story making waves that year,” he added, likely referring to “Call Me By Your Name.” “God’s Own Country,” a festival hit by Francis Lee, is, perhaps not ironically, clearly heavily-influenced by Leigh. It focuses, much like “Another Year,” on life outside the metropolis, of depression, happiness, and, just, simply, life from the point of view of people we do not always think about.

Leigh then offered, unprompted his thoughts on “Roma.” “It’s admirable, for someone to put themselves out there like that,” he said of Cuaron’s film. “But, in a sense, it’s almost too perfect, too staged. I like a film that is a little rough around the issues, that makes it feel more real to me. But, I have to give credit to the guy, you rarely see someone so selflessly portray their stories and their intimate thoughts in a movie like that.”

Perhaps the coda about where we go, that tinge of optimism, is what his movies are all about after all.

What is your favorite Mike Leigh film? Let us know in the comments!!


What do you think?

Written by J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam is a New York-based film critic and journalist. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online, the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and an inaugural member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.


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