Why Mike Leigh's 'Peterloo' Resonates in the Current Political Age

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
'Peterloo'

The veteran director and his star, Maxine Peake, reflect on why the previously largely unexplored tale of one the U.K.'s most notorious and defining moments is something relevant in the U.K. and the U.S.

When Mike Leigh first revealed in 2015 that he was developing a project about the Peterloo Massacre, he didn’t have to wait long until Maxine Peake got in touch.

“She wrote to me as soon as I announced I was making it,” the veteran director says with a laugh.

Even before he’d heard from Peake, however, several of her industry friends had already recommended that he cast the actress in the Amazon-backed film (also financed by Film4 and the BFI), which had its world premiere in Venice on Saturday and is heading to Toronto for its North American debut.

“They kept on telling me that they’d met Mike and said I should be in it. I was like, stop saying that!,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. Fearing he’d feel pressured, she soon decided to “bite the bullet” and simply get in touch herself.

“In the end, I just sent him a little postcard saying I’d love to be in it in whatever capacity. And if not, [I wrote] that it’s just fantastic that you’re bringing [the subject] to a wider audience, and it’s exciting.”

Many actors appeal directly to directors with a request to work together, but for Peake, already a well-respected face on British stage and screen and perhaps best known internationally for roles in The Theory of Everything (she plays the nurse of Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking) and the recent monochrome Black Mirror "Metalhead" episode (the one with the robotic killer dogs), Peterloo was much more than just a movie she liked the sound of.

Considered one of the most notorious moments in U.K. history – branded “Britain’s Tiananmen Square” – the Peterloo Massacre was the name given to the bloody events that took place in Manchester, England, on Aug. 16, 1819.

With the industrial revolution in full swing and extreme poverty rampant, more than 60,000 people – around half the population of a city at the beating heart of the factory boom, yet one treated with disdain by the aristocracy in London – had gathered peacefully on a sunny Monday afternoon in St. Peter’s Field to call for parliamentary reform, for working men to have a vote alongside the propertied classes and for Manchester to have representation in Parliament.

Fearing the sort of political uprising that had helped ignite a revolution in France less than three decades earlier, jittery magistrates sent in the cavalry, with sabres drawn, and a slaughter ensued. Fifteen people were killed, including women and children (the first fatality was a baby boy knocked out his mother’s arms), and more than 400 were injured.

Although Peterloo wouldn’t spark immediate change (the aftermath would actually see further clampdowns by the authorities), it shocked the nation and would eventually become the catalyst for reform, a symbol of class struggle over state suppression. It also famously helped give rise to the Manchester Guardian newspaper, the forerunner to The Guardian.

Nearly 200 years on, however, Peterloo has almost been sidelined in British history, commemorated in left-wing circles but largely unknown elsewhere in society. Even in Manchester itself, the only memorial is a small blue plaque on the wall of the Radisson Hotel, set on the old site of St. Peter’s Field (and a building better known for once being the Free Trade Hall, a venue where the Sex Pistols played one of their most influential gigs and Bob Dylan was famously called “Judas” for going electric).

Among those who have led the charge for greater recognition of Peterloo is Peake, who hails from Bolton, in northern Manchester (Leigh, meanwhile, comes from Salford, just west of the city center).

The actress, among the most politically vocal in the U.K., regularly speaks at commemorative events, reading out the names of those who lost their lives in a bid to preserve their memory. In 2013, as part of the Manchester Festival, she read "The Masque of Anarchy," the celebrated political poem and call for nonviolent resistance that Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in response to the massacre just weeks after it happened. The poem’s closing line, "Ye are many - they are few," is used in the trailer for Peterloo.

As Leigh jokingly admits, when Peake asked if she could be have a role in his film – which is the first major project to bring Peterloo to either big or small screen – he didn’t really have much of a choice.

“He wrote back and said, ‘Of course you can be in it,' ' says Peake, although she claims that her character, a working-class mother whose family is far more politically involved as she deals with the daily struggle of putting food on the table, was her “punishment” from Leigh.

“He did ring me and said, ‘You think you’re playing [noted reformist and early suffragette] Mary Fildes, don’t you? Well, you’re not, because she’s Irish,'" she says, laughing.

On set, levels of knowledge about the subject varied among the actors, with most having never heard of it. Leigh says that almost no one – including him – had been taught about Peterloo in school.

Even Peake admits that, despite the educational grounding of her politics (which she learned mostly from her grandfather), she still had much to learn. But the months in development with Leigh helped stir interest among the whole team.

“You could see it start to have an effect on people,” Peake says, adding that several actors visited Salford’s Working Class Movement Library, which houses one of the most extensive collections of materials about the history of the labor movement, and of which she is a patron. “It was really exciting to see some of the younger actors, who perhaps already had some political leanings, really get involved in learning about pieces of history that they didn’t know much about,” she says.

The hope is that the film will spark a surge in interest in Peterloo and the events around it, both in the U.K. and the U.S., with parallels to the current political climate noticeably apparent. A population feeling increasingly disenfranchised from those in power, escalating poverty levels as inequality increases, and a tendency by those at the top to blame those at the bottom for their woes are just some of the factors that make it relevant, not to mention the current attacks on the press (the aftermath of Peterloo saw authorities instructing the police to go after journalists reporting on the event).

“People seem to the think that the Americans are only interested in the history of the British aristocracy, but I think they will really get it, because it’s such a universal story,” says Peake. “If you look at America and where it is at the moment, I think there’s a section of the American public crying out for something like this.”

As for Leigh, who has already called for the Peterloo Massacre to be added to the educational curriculum of British schools, the importance of the event has only been enhanced by recent shifts in society.

“Over the course of the two or three years we were making it, we realized how it had become ever more relevant, given what’s been going on at the moment,” he says. “It’s very important. There are certain events in history that are sort of watershed moments. I expect one of them happened two years ago, what we call Brexit. I think it’s one of those.”