A sense of history: Mike Leigh’s period cinema

Among his richest films, Mike Leigh’s quartet of period pieces are perfect examples of how to – in his words – make period films that don’t just look like costume dramas.

10 November 2021

By Alex Ramon

Mr. Turner (2014)

Although Mike Leigh remains most associated with his depictions of modern British life, his four historical dramas stand as some of the richest films he’s made in the last two decades, offering ambitious and rewarding takes on varied aspects of the nation’s past.

Mike Leigh on the set of Vera Drake (2004)

Ever since Topsy-Turvy (1999), with its spirited evocation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s creation of The Mikado in the 1880s, upended expectations of what a Leigh film could do and be, Leigh has clearly felt empowered to explore other aspects of the British past, and to continue to do so on broad canvases.

The result has been, to date, a quartet of films – Vera Drake (2004), Mr. Turner (2014) and Peterloo (2018) to name the others – that are notable not only for their meticulous research but also for their subversive insights, challenging structures and wide scopes.

Respectfully received, but not always as celebrated as they deserve, Leigh’s period films are best understood as panoramas or tapestries: textured, multi-stranded, intricate in their weave, and as focused on character and relationships as all of his work set in the present day. 

Leigh’s first period piece was a play, not a film. Staged at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1993, It’s a Great Big Shame! juxtaposed characters connected to the same east London address in the late 1800s and the early 1990s. (Eighteen years later, Leigh’s 2011 play Grief would bridge that temporal gap with a delicate but bruising exploration of 1950s middle-class generational tensions.)

Leigh called It’s a Great Big Shame! “a conscious exercise in doing a Victorian project”. This is a period to which the director has felt a strong connection from a young age due to early reading of Dickens, Tom Brown’s School Days and Punch, plus the childhood trips to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas that would directly inspire Topsy-Turvy. He described the latter film to Amy Raphael as representing “a lifetime’s informal study of and immersion in the period”.  

Leigh’s famed, organic approach to character creation might seem antithetical to work based around historical figures and events. But the director has clearly found ways to successfully apply his methods. “I and my collaborators enjoy the challenge of capturing how people spoke, behaved, what they wore, what a place looked like,” Leigh says. “Let’s make a period film that doesn’t look like just a costume drama. Let’s make it so that you really believe these are real people with real issues and preoccupations.”

Topsy-Turvy (1999)

This forensic attention to the recreation of daily life and work as experienced in the past immediately distinguished Topsy-Turvy. Few films have given such a comprehensive sense of the creation of a theatrical production, which Leigh traces from inspiration through financial practicalities, casting and costuming to performance – all the while paying beady attention to the protagonists’ personal lives and the wider social contexts from which they emerge.

With its focus on an intensely collaborative creative process, Topsy-Turvy undoubtedly has its meta side, but it’s one that never feels forced or self-regarding. At the centre remains Leigh’s concern with contrasting characters and their relationships, with Allan Corduner’s twinkly, charismatic Sullivan set against Jim Broadbent’s trickier, more mordant Gilbert, and the escapist world of the operetta juxtaposed with the difficulties and disappointments of life off-stage (ranging from toothache to childlessness).

Infused with the director’s unsentimental affection for English eccentricity, the film sees a vast cast of Leigh regulars and newcomers rise to the challenge of creating a diverse range of idiosyncratic Victorians. “It is 1885,” Sullivan’s elegant, worldly mistress Fanny (Eleanor David) reminds him. The viewer never doubts it.

That scene between Sullivan and his lover, with Fanny obliquely referring to her arrangements for the termination of an unwanted pregnancy, leads to Leigh’s next period project, Vera Drake. Here the discovery of the protagonist (Imelda Staunton)’s activities as an illegal abortionist in a wintry London of 1950 is the pivot of the piece. 

Vera Drake (2004)

So far the only one of Leigh’s period films not to feature real-life figures, and the only one to draw on some of his own childhood memories, Vera Drake may seem the smallest-scaled of his historical films to date. Yet its first half has a wonderfully subtle scope, presenting the contrasting personalities and work lives of the Drake family and giving short but pointed snapshots of the different women whom Vera “helps out”. These add up to a vivid social portrait.

It’s only after Vera’s arrest that the film narrows down in an appropriately claustrophobic fashion. No heroic courtroom speeches here, only the crushing sense of an unsympathetic system – notwithstanding the tenderness exhibited by Peter Wight’s police inspector – that leaves the generous-hearted Vera shamed, silent and broken.

Leigh’s two most recent period films, Mr. Turner and Peterloo, were long-delayed passion projects: the former an account of the last 25 years of the artist J.M.W. Turner’s life; the latter a dramatisation of the events leading up to the attack on peaceful protesters by police and army units at St Peter’s Field in Manchester in 1819.

With large casts and unusual, episodic structures, these capacious films render British history both intimate and epic. Like Topsy-Turvy, Mr. Turner subverts biopic conventions in numerous ways, rejecting comfy “development of an artist” narrative patterns and presenting Timothy Spall’s Turner in the context of a wide web of personal and professional relationships.  

That Altmanesque expansiveness is pushed even further in Peterloo, which enacts the democratic impulse that is its subject by never allowing one character to dominate. Instead the film moves elegantly between groups and gatherings, offering a social portrait that once again feels Dickensian in its reach, and suggesting that the only way to achieve any kind of historical truth is through a multiplicity of voices and viewpoints.

Peterloo (2018)

Criticisms that Peterloo is nothing but a series of speeches miss the point. Always exceptionally sensitive to the different ways in which characters express themselves, Leigh’s period films are as rich linguistically as they are visually, refusing to dumb down or contemporise antiquated language. The limitations and possibilities of rhetoric is one of Peterloo’s themes and, alongside intense debates about parliamentary reform, the film finds space for beguiling daily details that bring the past to life, such as the “hot potato pie” eagerly anticipated by Neil Bell’s Samuel Bamford after his trip to London.

Avoiding the traps of either heritage nostalgia or smug anachronism, Leigh’s four period films constitute a rich, distinctive contribution to contemporary cinema. They are, to paraphrase Jim Broadbent’s murderous earl in Leigh’s 1992 mock doc short of the same name, infused with a deep “sense of history”, making of the British past a country both foreign and familiar.

Further reading

Major celebration of Mike Leigh announced for the autumn

Major celebration of Mike Leigh announced for the autumn

Where to begin with Mike Leigh

By Matthew Thrift

Where to begin with Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh: the naked truth

By Andy Medhurst

Mike Leigh: the naked truth
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