Film review - The Spirit of 45

The DVD release of Ken Loach’s 2013 documentary The Spirit of ‘45 is particularly timely given the present government’s attempts to reform the National Health Service (NHS) and the furore surrounding Margaret Thatcher’s recent death. Loach remains a staunch socialist and his film is, in large part, a celebration of Labour’s achievements after its landslide victory in the 1945 general election. He compares the acute poverty that existed in the 1930s, the huge gap between rich and poor, with the community spirit that flourished after the war and was to prevail under Labour for the next few years.

Loach combines archive footage with contemporary interviews. Miners, nurses, doctors, railway men trade unionists and ordinary working class men and women describe the poverty that they were rescued from and the sense of hope they all felt with the nationalisation of Britain’s heavy industries and public utilities and the building of new public housing. The high point of Clement Atlee’s government was the birth of the NHS in 1948 – championed by minister of health, Aneurin Bevan.

The post-war Labour administration oversaw a period of dramatic change in Britain, from 1945 to 1951, and this is perhaps why Loach, after covering the period jumps abruptly to 1979, the year Thatcher came to power. During her eleven-year reign she was responsible for dismantling all that the Labour party held dear, returning everything to the private sector. However, by omitting these two decades, the strikes, three day week and rampant inflation of the 1970s inherited by Thatcher is not even touched upon.

Inevitably, given his politics, Loach’s perspective is going to be one-sided. He includes fascinating footage of Winston Churchill and Thatcher being booed (apparently cinema audiences also jeered when Thatcher first appeared on screen). Loach clearly blames Thatcher’s policies for Britain’s current disunity. Mass privatisation and the crushing of the trade unions led to public disillusionment and social unrest which, he implies, we are still reeling from today. Through clever editing, Loach links today’s protests – such as Occupy in St Paul’s – with earlier demonstrations against poverty and injustice.

The Spirit of ’45 is shot in monochrome until its final moments when we return to the footage celebrating the end of the war, which has been coloured by Gareth Spensley, underlining the explosive and exhilarating sense of optimism and hope. In documenting this period so carefully, Loach seems to be suggesting that the time is now ripe for British communities to pull together once more. By recapturing the spirit of 45, finding a national solidarity that challenges the austerity measures, Britain may yet return to the unity needed to achieve a fairer society.

DVD release 94 mins

Dogwoof 15th April 2013

features an additional disc (420 mins)

Originally published by Cine-Vue