Mike Leigh’s films have always been first and foremost about people. He makes incredibly rich and detailed character studies, famously conducting his actors through months of improv work before he even sits down to write a screenplay. Somehow, that’s been the case even when he’s occasionally tackled famous historical subjects, like 19th-century Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner. Topsy-Turvy recounts the creation of The Mikado, but everybody on screen, from Gilbert and Sullivan themselves down to the smallest member of the ensemble, registers just as vividly as do the wholly invented characters in Naked or Secrets & Lies.
That’s what makes Leigh’s latest effort such an anomaly. Peterloo doesn’t deliberately skimp on character, but it’s the first of his movies in which no inividual makes much of an impression, and each one is fundamentally subordinate to the larger event being painstakingly chronicled. “Peterloo” is the nickname given to a massacre of unarmed civilians by cavalry soldiers that occurred on August 16, 1819, at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester. (Just as we now strip the “Water” from Watergate for every similar scandal, they stripped the “Water” from Waterloo, suggesting an equivalent to Napoleon’s then-recent bloody defeat.) Eigtheen people were killed in the melee, with hundreds more injured; the movie builds to the horror, eventually showing just what happens when men on horseback charge into a crowd with their swords drawn and start indiscriminately slashing at people who are just trying to get out of the way.
To his credit, Leigh is less interested in the massacre itself than he is in the series of political machinations that inexorably led to it. His challenge: That’s an incredibly dry subject—England’s equivalent of Ben Stein droning on to Ferris Bueller’s classmates about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. Here, the proximate cause of all the trouble is tariffs imposed on imported grain, known as the Corn Laws; widespread dissatisfaction with these laws, which benefited wealthy landowners at the expense of everyone else, resulted in demands for parliamentary reform.
Peterloo makes an effort to demonstrate how this affected a typical Manchester family, opening with one weary soldier (David Moorst) returning home from Waterloo and subsequently becoming semi-radicalized as a result of the deprivation. Mostly, though, the film consists of public meetings at which organizers bellow things like “The object of Parliament ought to be the general good, the equal protection, the security of the person and property of each individual, and therefore labor—the poor man’s only property—ought to be as sacred as any other property!” That sort of rhetoric almost always gets exhausting in a hurry (even MAGA-heads who wait in line all day to see Trump free-associate often leave early), and it represents a sizable chunk of this lengthy film’s first hour [ . . . ]
Otherwise working in period films is all pros and no cons, says Lesley Manville
She loves clothes and costume dramas and so Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017), set in the haute couture world of London in 1954, was a perfect fit. Lesley Manville plays Cyril Woodcock, sister to Daniel Day-Lewis’ gifted but obsessive couturier, Reynolds Woodcock
Talking about the preparation for her role, Lesley says over the phone from London, “I knew I was going to do the film about seven months before we started filming so I had lots of time to research the period of the film, the 50s, the history of fashion, the world of fashion leading up to that. I had time to think about the character and how I might play her. I had lots of sessions and meetings with Paul Thomas Anderson, I had a few with Daniel Day Lewis, lots of costume fittings with Mark Bridges. You put all the research, the work and the preparation in and then you start to shoot the film. That is when everybody has to try and find a way to create something that is going to work and going to be interesting.”
Insisting there aren’t any cons to working in a period film, the 63-year-old says, “I love costume dramas because you put on these clothes and when you go to the set everything is in the right period which helps you feel very much in that world. I find it all a great help and it is such a beautiful period as well. Women dressed so beautifully at that time in history. Everything about it was helpful. Sometimes your corset is a bit tight! (laughs) Apart from that it is all pros, no cons.” [ . . . ]
Mike Leigh just made a movie with help from Amazon, but that doesn’t mean he thinks the studio is free from criticism. Speaking to the Guardian, the “Peterloo” director referred to streaming services in general and his benefactor in particular as a “new breed of executives” who micromanage projects in a way that’s more like traditional Hollywood than they’d like to admit.
“I’m not talking about my own experience with Amazon, who backed ‘Peterloo’ and who behaved impeccably,” he was quick to clarify. “The problem really exists for younger filmmakers.”
Leigh, one of England’s most celebrated auteurs, is best known for such films as “Naked” and “Secrets & Lies”; he won Best Director at Cannes for the former, the Palme d’Or for the latter, and has been nominated for seven Academy Awards (all in the Best Original Screenplay and Best Director categories).
“The new streaming services all like to say they don’t work like Hollywood,” he continued. “But, actually, by suggesting a director works with a particular team, or asking why you are not using a female cinematographer, or wondering whether the film should have an upbeat ending, they are behaving in a traditional Hollywood, Louis B Mayer-way and it is totally unacceptable,” he said. Continue reading →
The award-winning director remembers Finney’s unique bonhomie, from his shining legacy at Salford grammar school to his support of Leigh’s film debut Bleak Moments
By Mike Leigh | THE GUARDIAN February 15,2019
When I arrived at Salford grammar school in 1954, Albert Finney had just left for Rada, the glittering star of the school’s dramatic society. My school friend and future colleague Les Blair, a year my senior, witnessed his legendary performance as Sweeney Todd. Albert’s legacy shone its light on all of our productions and we tracked his meteoric progress in awe. My final-year production of a very forgettable play won the brand new Albert Finney cup, donated by his parents.
By the time I followed him to Rada in 1960, Albert had become an RSC star, understudying and going on for Laurence Olivier as Coriolanus; he had toured with Charles Laughton, had just completed Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and was appearing in the West End as Billy Liar. There, my Rada classmate and fellow Mancunian Ian McShane and I sheepishly visited him in his dressing room after a performance, to be greeted by his characteristically convivial generosity. Continue reading →