The Peterloo Massacre is the one moment I know of when journalists tried to make the "-loo" suffix derived from the Battle of Waterloo a thing like "-gate" is in American politics. The killing of approximately a dozen civilians by British troops took place during a mass demonstration at St. Peter's Field in Manchester on August 16, 1819. To some observers, it was like the war (against Napoleon) coming home, with some people involved in both events. Longtime radical filmmaker Mike Leigh uses Waterloo and Peterloo as bookends for his period piece portraying the erratic radicalization of one working-class family. We're introduced to them after Joseph (David Moorst) a bugler and traumatized survivor of the great battle, makes his way home to Manchester, then a cutting-edge industrial town with the inevitable exploitation of labor. Working people's main problem, however, was high food prices, artificially inflated by the protectionist Corn Laws that forbade the importation of foreign grain ("corn" in British English) and other foodstuffs. Employers imposing wage cuts proves the final straw for many, who now form a ready audience for orators local and national advocating for democratization of the parliamentary election process. In short, these people want regular elections on a "one man, one vote" basis in place of the infamous system of rotten boroughs and property qualifications for voting. The local grandees are having none of it, fearing a replay of the French Revolution that they and a European coalition had only just snuffed out. They're looking for any excuse to crack down on radical orators and publishers and intimidate workers into their proper deference to their betters. At St. Peter's Field, despite the best efforts of some organizers, the forces of reaction get their chance, with terrible consequences.
Peterloo left me wondering whether Leigh meant his history play as an implicit commentary on modern politics, or at least one aspect of it. The film is preoccupied with speech, to its detriment in some eyes. At first glance or listen, you might assume that Leigh is simply besotted with 19th century rhetoric in all its pyrotechnic pomposity. But it's important to note that the orators are hardly the heroes of the picture. They are often shown as self-indulgent, self-important and irresponsible. When a working-class woman comments that she can't understand much of what a female orator is saying at one women's meeting, Leigh means, I think, for us to sympathize with the humbler rather than the more progressive female. Elsewhere, a male orator clearly enjoys himself at least as much as his hearers enjoy him threatening the royal family with all manner of classical references. Such displays are inevitable with the stirring of liberty, but whether they further justice effectively is open to debate. The point of all the oratory isn't so much that Leigh is in love with the sounds of speech but that the speechmakers are in love with the sounds of their own voices -- a trait they share with their antagonists, who take much the same pleasure in their jeremiads against the poor, as individuals and a collective. There's an echo, perhaps intended as a premonition, of today's self-indulgent posturing in social media or partisan media in general. Peterloo leaves a cumulative impression that oratory didn't help matters as much as orators and their audiences may have assumed or hoped. Leigh definitely doesn't hold the orators responsible for the carnage -- the ruling-class characters are almost cartoonish in their flamboyant contempt for the poor and are quite capable of manipulating events to get the results they want -- but he does seem to be suggesting that a dependence on such spellbinders as "Orator" Hunt (Rory Kinnear) is more likely to lead to a dead end than other approaches. The fact that we don't get any epilogue title cards telling us when reform was finally achieved adds to that impression.
The climax -- the massacre -- is not as dynamic as movie buffs might want. It's definitely no Battleship Potemkin, for all the sabres slashing at helpless protesters, but it gets better as it goes on and the military charge devolves into a random sequence of individual fights between soldiers and demonstrators. These moments are more to Leigh's artistic scale and nicely illustrate how passions on both sides had been inflamed by the rhetoric of mutual hatred. Viewers should leave as outraged as Leigh wants them to be. It may be a bit heavyhanded to have the poor bugler of Waterloo meet his end at Peterloo, and then have reporters talk about the war coming home, but in our own reactionary age Leigh probably didn't want to be too subtle on his main point, which is the injustice of early industrial England before the emergence of a real labor movement or real labor party. Whatever a viewer may think the appropriate solution was to the situation, everyone watching Peterloo should agree that something had to be done. It's a history lesson worth taking, and if it gets you thinking about the way we do politics today, it'll be even more worthwhile.