The Spirit of '45 (G)

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Review byMatthew Turner17/03/2013

Four out of Five stars
Running time: 94 mins

Impressively directed and pointedly structured, Ken Loach's riveting documentary is by turns awe-inspiring, heartwarming, depressing and, like all the best issue-based docs, rage-inducing; as such, it demands to be seen.

What's it all about?
Directed by Ken Loach (making a welcome return to documentaries after more than a decade), The Spirit of '45 begins with archive footage of crowds celebrating VE Day, before cataloguing the shocking conditions of poverty and deprivation that existed in post-war Britain. The film then details the landslide Labour victory under Clement Atlee in 1945 and identifies a nationwide sense of hope, optimism and hunger for change that allowed the 1945-51 Labour government to implement an extraordinary series of social reforms, including the setting up of the Welfare State, building council houses, nationalising a swathe of industries such as coal, steel, electricity, gas, water and the railways, and setting up the National Health Service.

The film then jumps forward thirty years to Margaret Thatcher's election in 1979 and, with heavy heart, examines the systematic dismantling of everything the 1945-51 government achieved. The film ends on what is practically a call to arms, hoping to resurrect something of the Spirit of '45 in order to save the National Health Service.

The Good
Shooting almost entirely in black and white (save for some home movie footage at the end) Loach tells the film through a combination of extraordinary archive material (newsreel, documentary, etc) and talking-head interviews with doctors, nurses, miners, train drivers, trade unionists and so on, each of whom deliver moving first-hand accounts of how their lives were transformed as a result. This gives the film the feel of a vitally important oral history project and it's impossible to watch the film without feeling relief that Loach has captured these important voices before it's too late.

Interspersed with the first-hand accounts are insightful and fascinating contributions from historians, economists and the occasional politician, the most prominent of which is Tony Benn, who's good value as always. Needless to say, the film isn't exactly balanced but Loach's glasses aren't entirely rose-tinted; one ex-miner bitterly relates the moment he realised that hated mine-owner Lord Hyndley was to be made chairman of the National Coal Board (‘The same old gang back in power’).

The Great
If the first half of the film is both awe-inspiring and heartwarming (it's impossible to imagine such sweeping social change today), the second half is profoundly depressing, driving home the sense that privatisation is all about greed and profit, illustrating how blatantly the social consequences are ignored and essentially positioning the NHS as the last bastion of socialism left in Britain.

Worth seeing?
The Spirit of '45 is a fascinating and important documentary that demands to be seen and should be shown in history lessons everywhere. Also, this is a film that is guaranteed to make Daily Mail readers angry and that can only be a good thing. Highly recommended.

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The Spirit of '45 (G)
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Content updated: 21/02/2020 09:52

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