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BERLIN — In 1945, newly liberated from the horrors of World War II, British voters elected to ditch wartime leader Winston Churchill and replace him with the progressive Labour Party headed by Clement Attlee. The election became a landslide, and the Welfare State was born. Making one of his rare digressions into documentary, director Ken Loach looks back fondly to an era when Britain embraced a brave new world of democratic socialism based on full employment, a mixed economy, housing and healthcare for all.
Fresh from its world premiere at a special Berlinale screening, The Spirit of ’45 is an engaging history lesson with clear built-in nostalgia appeal for viewers in Britain, where it opens theatrically next month. Overseas markets might find the subject a little too parochial and navel-gazing, though Loach’s strong track record and loyal European following should ensure further festival platforms, modest big-screen interest and guaranteed TV slots.
Shot in black and white, and intercut with archive footage from the 1940s and 1950s, Loach’s interviewees include labor union officials, nurses, coal miners, economists, doctors, dockworkers and retired politicians. The most famous, to Brits at least, is 87-year-old former Labour Party minister and anti-war campaigner Tony Benn. Each of them reminisces about the utopian optimism that swept the nation following the war, flushed with the sense that the collective effort they had witnessed on the battlefield would now be mobilized to build a more just and equal society.
The postwar decade saw most of Britain’s heavy industry, coal mines, train and utility companies taken into public ownership. Meanwhile, an ambitious new housing program swept away vast tracts of Dickensian slums and bomb-damaged ruins, constructing millions of new “homes fit for heroes” in their place. Perhaps most significant, the National Health Service was created in 1948, a taxpayer-funded “cradle to grave” system of socialized medicine for all citizens. The blueprint for “Obamacare,” the NHS has had a troubled existence almost since its inception, but it remains one of the most cherished institutions in the British public psyche.
In its closing act, Spirit of ‘45 jumps forward three decades to Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory. Her right-wing Conservative government began reversing Welfare State reforms in a series of industrial privatizations, spending cuts and bitter strikes. The take-home message is that Britain has become steadily less fair and equal ever since, especially for the working classes. The decline of union power, the banking crisis and the Occupy movement all figure in this mosaic of misery. Switching from chilly monochrome to warm color archive footage, the film ends with an incongruously upbeat call for a return to the progressive socialist ideals of the postwar years.
Much like Loach’s fiction films, Spirit of ’45 is mostly composed of unashamedly partisan comfort food for viewers on the political left. Conservatives no doubt will take issue with its one-sided and sloganeering view of history, conveniently glossing over the economic and industrial strife that convulsed Britain in the 1960s and ’70s.
In fairness, this subject is too broad for one film. The Attlee government, the birth of the NHS and British social housing policy could have easily filled at least 90 minutes apiece. And to his credit, Loach does include some criticism of the nationalized industries for being just as hierarchical and class-ridden as their profit-driven capitalist counterparts: “the same old gang back in power,” as one interviewee puts it. But for the most part, this documentary is preaching to the converted.
Spirit of ’45 is stitched together from a wealth of vintage music and visuals, but it has no more playful flourishes up its sleeve, no stylistic sleight-of-hand. Whether in drama or documentary, Loach always has adhered to a plain-speaking naturalism that can feel stiff and passionless at times. For better or worse, he keeps it real. He might be one of cinema’s last radicals, but he remains a highly conservative filmmaker.
Venue: Berlinale press screening, Feb. 9
Production companies: Sixteen Films, Channel Four, BFI
Producers: Rebecca O’Brien, Kate Ogborn, Lisa Marie Russo
Director: Ken Loach
Cast: Tony Benn, Eileen Thompson, Ray Davis, Dot Gibson, Raphie De Santos
Editor: Jonathan Morris
Film Archivist: Jim Anderson
Music: George Fenton
Sales Company: Wild Bunch
No rating, 94 minutes
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