If there are two things that can be reliably said about Mike Leigh, it’s that he’s a great filmmaker and a bit of a curmudgeon. Both men are present when the Georgia Straight reaches Leigh in New York to discuss his latest feature, Peterloo, opening at the Vancity Theatre on Saturday (July 20).
His grouchy side emerges over an inquiry into the use of CGI.
“The whole film is crawling with CGI,” Leigh snorts, before a poorly worded question about his working methods prompts an impatient reference to “esoteric procedures which I’m not up to discussing with anybody, including you”.
And, as a loyal Guardian reader, he’s in no mood to address the paper’s questionable treatment of U.K. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. “I think that’s a simplification,” he grumbles. “I don’t really accept it, basically, and that’s really all I have to say about that.”
Two things should be added here. First, even at his crankiest, the 76-year-old conveys a reassuring note of good humour. And, second, mention of the Guardian in the context of Peterloo is certainly allowed, since the newspaper was launched as the Manchester Guardian in direct response to the events depicted in the film.
Indeed, Peterloo—a masterpiece, to my eyes—is Leigh’s most overtly political movie, re-creating the bloody crackdown—known as the Peterloo Massacre—that left 18 people dead and hundreds injured during a rally calling for government reform in Manchester in 1819.
The film has also incited a small rebellion among some critics who prefer their period pieces a little more polite or their Mike Leigh a bit funnier. He suggests that they’ve “missed the point”.
“I think it reveals a rather naive and romantic idea of the world, an infantile view of the world,” he says, referring to complaints about the film’s deliciously grotesque rendering of the magistrates, church leaders, and royals who brought violent suppression to the protest. They’re depicted as a sadistic bunch because, as Leigh insists, “Some people are like that.”
“I reject the accusation of caricature or whatever you call it in the context of the delineation of these characters in Peterloo,” he says. “That kind of fascism is driven by a high sense of moral superiority. At one point, one of the magistrates, I actually have him say, ‘We are their moral superiors,’ which is a sort of Christian conviction that people that transgress need to be punished in the most fundamental and biblical way. And it’s very worrying, because such behaviour, in one form or another, has not gone away.”
One might guess that it’s the stridency of Peterloo that has ruffled the middlebrow. This typically incisive vision of class war is shorter on the drollery that defined much of Leigh’s earlier work. It’s an urgent, impassioned act of radical filmmaking about an event that occurred not far from the lifelong leftist’s family home.
One wonders if the character of a painter, appearing in one memorable scene, is a fanciful surrogate for the filmmaker himself? Uh-oh—wrong question.
“No,” Leigh tuts, testily. “That’s rubbish.”