Filmmaker Five: Mike Leigh

From Henry VIII to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, renowned English director and writer Mike Leigh names five of the best films about the past.

List: Mike Leigh’s five favorite historical dramas

Mike Leigh is a filmmaking treasure the world doesn’t deserve. Primarily associated with intimate, heavily workshopped dramas such as Meantime, Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake, the five-time Academy Award nominee is equally adept at all sorts of other genres, as evidenced by the legendarily brutal character study Naked, the behind-the-scenes period musical Topsy-Turvy, and his more recent art biopic Mr. Turner.

Despite that well demonstrated versatility, many audiences still hold on to an idea of what a “classic” Mike Leigh film comprises, and his latest effort, Peterloo, goes further away from that than anything he’s made prior.

Peterloo centers around a violent incident in British history, the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, where the government-backed cavalry charged into a peaceful crowd of over 60,000 that had gathered in Manchester, England to demand democratic reform and protest rising poverty levels.

More than a dozen protesters were killed and hundreds more injured, sparking a nationwide outcry but also a greater government crackdown.

The film, starring Rory Kinnear and Maxine Peake, hits US theaters this week. It was released in the UK late last year, when Letterboxd member Mark Cunliffe remarked upon its stark degree of contemporary relevance: “If you think that Peterloo is something that belongs to the past, then you’re living in cloud cuckoo land. Its message resonates to this day. There’s a moment where Maxine Peake’s matriarch Nellie calculates that her youngest daughter will be 85 in the year 1900 and hopes that the world will be a better, fairer place for her by then. The sad truth is we’re still waiting for that equal society.”

Or as Matt Lynch put it, this is “Mike Leigh’s Ken Loach movie”.

Mike Leigh on the set of Peterloo.
Mike Leigh on the set of Peterloo.

To mark the opening of Peterloo in American theaters, Mike Leigh shared a list of his favorite historical dramas with us. 

Mike Leigh’s Favorite Historical Dramas

Napoléon (1927)

Directed by Abel Gance

Five-and-a-half-hour-long silent era classic. Only covers part of the story as Gance planned to make five sequels. He didn’t. Don’t let the running time put you off, says member Plain_Simple_T, “It may have an epic length but hardly a single minute is wasted; this is a powerful, rousing and cleverly directed film with an excellent Carl Davis score that enlightens, awes and entertains.”

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Directed by Alexander Korda

Legendary British actor Charles Laughton, who later directed the all-time classic The Night of the Hunter, gave arguably his most iconic performance (okay, after Mutiny on the Bounty) in this biopic of the King who couldn’t stop getting married. “One of my favorite renditions of this period. Very funny, very true, and great characters,” writes member rosieroobud.

I Am Cuba (1964)

Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov

This Soviet-Cuba film comprises four vignettes set in the final days of the Batista regime, and was designed as a pro-Castro piece of filmmaking. Famous for its innovative cinematography, as described eloquently by member Oscar Lau: “The virtuoso camera work flowed, twirled, descended, arose, marched, without physical and cerebral restriction.”

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Another film known for its cinematography, Stanley Kubrick infamously lit this movie so that it looked like only candlelight was being used. It’s one of his least seen, but most acclaimed, films, and its reputation grows with every passing year. “Absolute masterpiece! Hilarious and mesmerizing. I have so many thoughts but need to watch it again to clarify everything!” enthuses member tommygroove. Mike Leigh himself said in an interview with Creative Screening that Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 classic is “a great film with a great script, drawn from a literary source obviously, and very integrated”.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978)

Directed by Ermanno Olmi

Of this Palme d’Or-winning film about farm life in late 19th-century Italy, Mike Leigh once said: ”The Tree of Wooden Clogs is a film about man and place, environment, seasons, the passing cycle of things; it’s about power, class, religion and faith; love, superstition and journeys; life and death.” So basically the Avengers: Endgame of 1978.

It’s a hefty list, but we’d expect nothing less from a filmmaker as serious and notable as Mike Leigh. Thanks Mike! Now do the right thing and add these to your watchlists.


Peterloo’ is in US cinemas now.

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