A solidly assembled docu that charts how Blighty’s Labour Party met the nation’s need for change by nationalizing public utilities and services for the greater good after WWII, Ken Loach’s “The Spirit of ’45” is an earnest polemic-cum-history lesson that’s effectively a party political broadcast for socialism. Weaving together talking heads and archive footage, the pic makes its point with dignity and passion, but it’s a trifle too dry and monochromatic, literally, to unite workers of the world. Pre-converted auds, however, will happily absorb the sermon via limited distribution at home and abroad, especially with an assist from viral marketing.
Subtitled “Memories and Reflections of the Labour Victory 1945,” the docu is at its best in the opening reels as it describes how the British public seized a chance to radically reform health policy, housing and industries nationwide by voting for Labour’s socialist platform, laid out in large subtitled chunks from the party’s 1945 manifesto. It’s a lesson every British schoolkid learns, but still one that bears repeating, especially when it’s put across so accessibly here via reminiscences from working-class people like nurse Eileen Thompson and miner Ray Davies, who recall firsthand the deprivation of the times. Only the most stony-hearted could fail to be moved when Liverpuddlian Sam Watts describes how his mother died after childbirth because the family couldn’t afford medical care.
Better-known figures like politician Tony Benn, activist John Rees and eminent doctors such as Julian Tudor Hart and Harry Keen fill in the more formal historical background. The main takeaway, conveyed by all, is that this massively complex project was achieved, despite Winston Churchill and the Conservative Party’s best efforts to stop it, because the people believed they could do anything after defeating fascism through the war effort.
The film’s midsection methodically examines the impact of nationalization on the health service (which alone should make this essential viewing for curious U.S. auds), mining, railways and power utilities, and the enormous boom in public housing that was so instrumental to the success of all of the above. And then Margaret Thatcher was swept into power in 1979, and one by one nearly every nationalized service and industry was dismantled, resulting in the acrimonious 1984 miners’ strike, fatal railway accidents in the 1990s, and the devastation of whole communities.
It’s all very rousingly laid out, but even the most ardent leftist couldn’t fail to notice that it’s also a highly selective history that doesn’t even pretend to give a voice to more conservative or even centrist views. Environmentalists, meanwhile, might take issue with the way the pic mourns the death of Britain’s coal industry, and practically no airtime is spent explaining why the people, so heroic for voting in socialism in 1945, turned against it in 1979 by voting for Thatcher. A younger generation of auds, especially those sympathetic to the Occupy movement, is also apt to feel somewhat patronized by the senior citizens who declare here that what those young ‘uns really want, whether they know it or not, is a return to socialist values and policies. As the kids today are wont to say with laconic sarcasm, really?
Technically, “The Spirit of ’45” is competently assembled, although the decision to use black-and-white, even for the contempo-shot interviews, reps a curiously distancing aesthetic choice for a docu that’s meant to appeal to the masses. Score serves up lots of brass-band renditions of “Jerusalem,” proletariat-rousing ditties and 1940s pop standards to provide an agreeable aural wallpaper for the imagery.