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
The acclaimed director answers a wide range of your questions about creative freedom, James Bond, and everything Rada didn’t teach him
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Mike Leigh sits before me, in his Soho office, a man without regrets – certainly with regard to his work, but probably in most aspects of his life, one suspects. If this doesn’t make him unique in the film industry, then he’s certainly in a tiny minority. The 75-year-old British director has made 20-odd films – from his TV work in the 1970s up to his latest release, Peterloo, perhaps his most ambitious and certainly his most expensive project yet – and he has never once had his arm twisted to compromise on his creative vision. He chooses the subject, handpicks the actors and the version we see on the screen is exactly the one that Leigh intended.
“I’m open to people who are happy for me to do what I do,” he explains. “I’m not open to anybody who tries to tell me what to do. I have on many occasions walked away from a project where there’s been even the suggestion that, ‘Well, we’ll back the film so long as there’s an American star in it.’ Walk away.”
Really, he’d walk away? “Of course,” Leigh replies, clearly considering the question either idiotic or mad. “And I have done on a number of occasions. It’s like a novelist being told what the novel should have in it. Or a painter being told, ‘It must include a lighthouse.’ And that’s the polite version.”
So Leigh is no people-pleaser, and yet, of course, at the same time he has become one of our best loved film-makers. He was raised in Salford and when he started making plays, and then films, he always imagined he would focus on contemporary issues. A particular inspiration was Jack Clayton’s 1959 film Room at the Top, a story of love and class set in a Yorkshire mill town, which came out when Leigh was 16 [ . . . ]
Read full story at: ‘Silly question!’ Mike Leigh interviewed by our readers and famous fans
A new film about the tragedy is ‘purest Mike Leigh in the best sense’ and ‘should resonate in the present, writes critic Caryn James.
Mike Leigh’s Peterloo builds toward a vibrantly realised moment based on British history. In 1819, when Manchester, England had no representative in parliament and the local economy was in shambles, 60,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Field for a peaceful demonstration, waving colourful banners and waiting to hear speakers for their cause. Before it had even started, the army was planning to shut the protest down.
On screen, soldiers on horseback wielding sabers tear through the crowd, slashing at anyone in their path: men, women and children. Leigh immerses viewers in the scene, lucidly carrying us into the crowd and its terrifying chaos. He tracks specific characters we have come to know as they cower from the riders or search for family members who have vanished from sight. In reality, 15 people were killed and hundreds injured. Some of the film’s fictional characters share their fate. Journalists of the day called the event the Peterloo Massacre, an allusion to Waterloo’s wartime carnage.
Peterloo is purest Mike Leigh in the best sense: class-conscious, beautifully acted and filmed and a call for social change. It is also, despite that kinetic battle scene, a film of ideas and political conversation, not action.
The historical problems Leigh’s characters confront are presented in exquisite detail, down to the sympathetic working class’s rotting teeth and the smug ruling class’s lace and finery. But the ideas are also designed to resonate today: an economy that short-changes workers, callous politicians without conscience or empathy, even an assault on truth and a defence of the journalism that might pierce the government’s lies.
As he has done when tackling other issues – abortion in Vera Drake, or race in Secrets and Lies – Leigh personalises those issues through his characters. The film begins at the Battle of Waterloo itself, explosions sounding while a young soldier named Joseph stands on the battlefield. In an extreme close-up, the film captures his blood-spattered face, his eyes bulging and staring in a disconcerting way. He makes his way home to Manchester, suffering from what would now be recognised as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
His poor, labouring family members are among the film’s central, fictionalised characters. They include his politically active father, grown siblings and their children, and his mother, Nellie. Maxine Peake (among only a handful of familiar actors) stands out as Nellie, who sells pies to earn a trifle of money and sees the need for reform, but is sceptical about the demonstration. Peake brings all that worry to the character’s face, but even with her, Leigh is not concerned about developing full characters. Joseph and Nellie are effectively used emblems.
Other characters are even less distinct, including journalists who arrive in Manchester to report on the protest. Some characters are in a single scene, including a servant who appears in court and is sentenced to hang for taking one of his master’s coats. That the master had two coats and the servant was cold is not considered an adequate defence by the judge.
The local magistrates and government representatives arrayed on the other side are even less defined, except by their shared condescension. Dismissing the lower class as “honest, gullible folk”, is the kindest word anyone in the ruling class has to say. They fear insurrection and decide they must keep the lower classes under their feet, bluntly stating that squelching the protest with violence will teach the upstarts a lesson.
In a brief but gleefully mischievous scene, the London ministers report on this trouble to the Prince Regent himself, played by Tim McInnerny as a bloated, vain, cartoonish narcissist with rouged cheeks. It’s hard not to see this bewigged caricature as Leigh’s nod to Donald Trump.
The ministers regularly distort the truth on the Prince’s behalf. When a potato is thrown at his closed royal carriage, the act is labelled a violent assault and used as another excuse to repress all protests. As the film moves between workers’ meetings in Manchester and the government’s preemptive plan to end the protest, Leigh creates a nightmare version of Downton Abbey’s upstairs/downstairs divide.
Straddling the two is Henry Hunt, a historical figure played by Rory Kinnear. A famous orator, he arrives in Manchester to speak out for workers’ rights. But he is also vain and snobbish, proof that political allies are not always the heroes you want them to be. Hunt’s presence and flawed character is the best evidence that the film won’t descend to simplistic versions of good and bad factions.
All of this is exquisitely shot by cinematographer Dick Pope. Along with Mr Turner and the delightful Topsy-Turvy, Peterloo is among Leigh’s most visually ravishing films. In chiaroscuro he depicts the dark browns inside the workers’ cottages, the light on their faces reminiscent of Rembrandt. Outside, there are wide shots of vast green fields in clear bright vistas, as a local militia prepares for battle. During the massacre, the red uniforms of the soldiers on horseback tower above the dull colours of the masses.
For all its strengths, there’s no denying that the film is talky. Joseph’s family debates whether the protest will be safe. In Manchester, some demonstrators want to carry arms, while others believe that will only provoke violence. The camera is fluid and active, so the scenes are never static. But all that dialogue may make some viewers restless during the 154-minute running time. The deliberate pacing is a risk Leigh is willing to take, as he holds back on the action and allows the conflict to simmer.
Some Leigh films are easy to like and others, such as Naked, with David Thewlis as a homeless brute, are more demanding. Peterloo requires viewers to accept the slow boil that leads to its explosive and sad end, but it is also the uncompromising work of a master.
Maxine Peake, the star of Mike Leigh’s new historical drama Peterloo, addressed a Manchester crowd gathered to pay tribute to the film’s bloody political battle.
Peake, 44, made an impassioned speech to crowds gathered to commemorate the massacre which occurred on the same date and in the same place, 199 years ago.The English actress, who stars as Nellie in the film, called the massacre ‘an outrage of which humanity recoils with horror and which is a foul stain upon our national character [ . . . ]