It’s not easy to be objective about a Ken Loach film; the audience tends to be either with him or against him, to paraphrase a certain US politician. Like all directors he puts our emotions through the wringer, makes us cry and rage, argue and debate, even smile and chuckle. The Spirit of ’45 is much more than a collection of archive film clips and interviews. The footage has been skillfully crafted into a clarion call for the nation to remember and rekindle the pioneering post-World War II spirit that forged the UK’s modern welfare state, including (and in this case especially) the NHS.
The Spirit of 45 is proving as divisive as we might expect, generating debate about its political bias, but we all know where Loach is coming from. He doesn’t try to disguise his intention of waking people up to, as he sees it, the disaster that is befalling the UK. Despite what some critics have claimed (in the Daily Mail for example) the film is as scathing about the failures of the Labour Party as it is about the Conservatives. Loach believes that neither has protected the ‘working class’ and a new left-wing alliance is desperately needed.
Spirit is a beautiful and artful use of archive film interspersed with gorgeous, crisply photographed interviews, which complement and inform the footage. Loach talks to some erudite, lively pensioners who describe their working class lives in the 1930s and ‘40s. There are desperate stories of parents having to choose which sick child to buy medicine for and emergency blood transfusions simply out of the reach of family budgets; this seems such a basic entitlement to us, but it was unattainable for many of our relatives before the NHS. Interviewees describe houses crawling with lice and beds full of bugs; mothers forever cleaning houses and clothes trying to control the vermin; rats scuttling by a pram in a hallway. We discover that before the NHS, shortsighted people with no money couldn’t see. Imagine that. Then in 1948 NHS glasses become available and hey presto! You could see! For free!
It’s not all gloom and doom: there are clips of joyous celebrations on VE Day, 8th May 1945 – cities festooned with ticker-tape, couples wading in the fountain at Trafalgar Square; dancing in the streets; a newly-returned Dad running down the street to rejoin his wife and kids; hugs and kisses at the docks as soldiers come home, sometimes after years away.
What did postwar Britain want and expect from its politicians? A rarely seen clip of Churchill being heckled on the stump is a powerful reminder of how desperate people were for change; there is elation following the Labour landslide victory; housing estates going up; well-staffed hospitals; planning for a future for all, not just the wealthy few. Nationalisation of the utilities and heavy industry was integral to the spirit of the time; Loach uses this as a filmic bridge to the 1980s and the effects of the Thatcher government’s policy of privatisation. Here the footage and interviews paint a grim picture of the multiple crises that racked the decade – unemployment, protracted strikes, ruined industries. Loach argues that we are now living through the end game that began in the ‘80s. Perhaps it’s a simplistic view of history, but in 90 minutes a film can only raise questions for debate and Spirit of ’45 certainly succeeds in this.
The final scene features many of the clips from the 1945 section, but in Technicolor. They are beautiful scenes; colour archive film from this period is very powerful. The switch to colour brings people out of memory and into our own time. One of the most memorable switches is of two young women, with almost sculptural underwear straining through their tight jumpers, pouting and preening before the camera, hanging on to their still-uniformed young men. We had seen them earlier in the b/w section but in colour these girls seem to embody the boldness and confidence of the age. It’s a funny and poignant moment of joy and celebration, and of hope for the future.
While the debate about its political bias rages, The Spirit Of ‘45 is a beautiful, emotional film, enlivened by real stories of both deprivation and of optimism and it shines a welcome light on our recent history.
This is an extended version of my review first published in March 2013 on Take One.
Buy the DVD from 15th April from http://www.dogwoofdvd.com/products/the-spirit-of-45.