Director: Ken Loach
Running time: 94 min
Release: March 15th
These days Marx turns up in Amazon’s folk and mythology section, the BNP is the big political party still talking about nationalisation and worker co-operatives, and people call Barack Obama a socialist; what does old-fashioned socialism mean to the contemporary world? To Ken Loach, at least, it’s the solution—the only escape from our current ruinous inequality. The Spirit of ’45 is a documentary, Loach’s first in many years, about the efforts of the post-WWII Labour government to bring about a more egalitarian society in Britain. His narrative marches through the depression of the 1930s and the war, lingers over those efforts of Attlee and his cabinet, and leaps over decades to get to the present crisis via the Thatcher era. Parallels are very explicitly drawn and socialistic solutions vaguely indicated.
The story is arrived at cumulatively, as we move between interviews with now-retired workers of the time and archive footage; there’s no voice-over proper, and but scant intertitles and subtitles. Obviously Loach imagines that the great narrative of socialism obviates the need for embellishment, or even a fancy font for the on-screen text; notwithstanding the artfully interpolated archive material, Spirit of ’45 lacks any decorative features. The effect is uncomfortable and a little dull; the worst bits are sort of like a mix of Oireachtas Report and Reeling in the Years.
Loach manages the haphazardness of the oral history approach by splitting the film into sections. There’s a section on the healthcare system, the coal mining sector, railways, and some public utilities in each of the periods the film discusses; pre-war, post-war and nowadays. The healthcare bits make the most convincing arguments, and are the most compelling in dramatic terms; there’s gripping footage of working-class hero Aneurin Bevan, Minister for Health and mastermind of the NHS, and charming present-day interviews with the nurses who managed the crossover from the old system. The nurses are filmed as a group, granting their conversation an energy and a naturalism missing from the other interviews. Loach, often accused of finagling viewers’ sympathies by means of sentiment, is unfortunately biased towards stories of e.g. hardened miners weeping over more substantial kinds of contribution.
The present-day stuff is weak, necessarily more partial and propagandistic than the rest of the film. The interviewees start to sound like incorrigible pensioners and the argument for re-nationalisation isn’t presented in a convincing way. Still, Loach may be correct in making the comparison—the force of the contemporary right’s willful incomprehension at the success of post-45 nationalisation projects, and their still-active dismantling of those very projects, is reason enough to make a film like Spirit of ’45, and might even be reason enough to go see it.