Director hits back as BFI mag savages new film. By Danny Moran.

It was an emotional evening, last night, for those lucky enough to attend the UK premiere of Mike Leigh’s much-anticipated historical epic Peterloo. The legendary film director, raised in Salford, was at HOME to introduce his new film before a sellout audience brimming with love for the man responsible for such unique films as Abigail’s PartyMeantimeNakedSecrets & LiesTopsy-Turvy and Mr Turner.

The special screening, included as part of this year’s London Film Festival programme, caps a career in cinema spanning almost fifty years but which has never, until now, seen him bring the place of his upbringing to the big screen.

Have you seen the film? Well there you are then...

There was widespread surprise when it was announced three years ago that his latest project was to be a full-blown costume slasher concerning the massacre of innocent democracy protestors at St Peters Field in 1819. Coming from a director better known, in his own words, for suburban dramas about people “shouting up staircases” - and usually set in London - it marks a significant departure even for a filmmaker who has branched out into period pieces in late career.

The film, featuring Maxine Peake and Rory Kinnear among a huge cast, arrives just as the city prepares to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the tragedy, said to be an under-reported and yet hugely significant landmark in the nation’s social history. For several years the Peterloo Memorial Campaign has been petitioning for proper recognition of the event which took place near site of the present-day Free Trade Hall.

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Peterloo director Mike Leigh with actor Maxine Peake on the red carpet at HOME

Born in Hertfordshire, the son of a Jewish doctor, Leigh grew up in Higher Broughton, attending North Grecian Street Primary School and Salford Grammar before winning a place at RADA, carving out a niche at the BBC, and then going on to produce a canon of films to rival anyone’s in British cinema history.

“It’s a great day and very moving,” he told Confidential in advance of last night’s red carpet event, which was broadcast simultaneously to cinemas across the country.

Behind the scenes, however, there have been ructions arising from a spectacularly negative review in the BFI magazine Sight & Sound, this week. When asked about it Leigh disclosed that he had been sufficiently upset by the write-up to lodge a complaint.

“It's outrageous. It bears no relation to the film,” he told Confidential. “Have you seen the film? Well there you are then.”

“Actually, I don’t want to talk about it,” he added when pressed.

Leigh’s complaint might seem half of an unremarkable story were it not for the savagery of the review which prompted it. For British cinema’s house journal to describe British cinema’s most eminent film director’s new work as “Mike Leigh’s Heaven’s Gate” is an astonishing takedown which requires putting into proper context. 

Michael Cimino’s overblown, ill-fated follow-up to The Deer Hunter is a byword for catastrophe in the movie industry, having irreparably destroyed the reputation of its director, won itself lingering worst-film-ever-made accolades, and almost bankrupted the United Artists picture studio in the process.

Even levelled with qualifications the comparison is something of a landmine.   

Reviews elsewhere have been generally positive, though another trade paper, the Hollywood Reporter, has published similar misgivings over what is undeniably a long and very speechy costume drama.

“Schoolteachers may find Peterloo useful as an educational aid…” wrote British journalist Stephen Dalton. “…box office is likely to fall short of previous Leigh releases.”

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A sell-out audience packed into HOME at First Street for the premiere

Whatever Leigh’s dissatisfaction with his press, a back catalogue such as his ensures there isn’t the slightest chance that he or his new film will suffer the same fate as Michael Cimino and Heaven’s Gate. And right now it would be churlish to do anything other than celebrate the belated return of one of the north’s most beloved sons to his home town. 

But Peterloo is a film which is going to divide people, even if it unites them on its worthiness as subject matter. Confidential recommends all Mancunians to check it out for themselves when it goes on general release next month. 

Peterloo goes on general release on November 2.

Image credits: HOME