Tuesday, 26 March 2013

REVIEW: The Spirit of '45 (2013)

Ken Loach returns to documentary for the first time in some years, an unashamedly polemical look at the Labour reforms following Clement Attlee’s election victory in 1945 and their destruction and reversal following the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Spirit of 45 VE Day Celebrations

When Clement Attlee won a landslide victory, he announced “a Labour movement with a socialist policy.” Key industries were nationalized, as was the health service, and housing reform began to lift many out of squalor. Loach intercuts archive footage with interviews from people who remember the climate of the time – people like Tony Benn, retired Labour minister, and Ray Davies, a former Welsh miner. The interviews largely tell of the joy and excitement of the time, when it looked like the government would finally introduce fair working and living conditions. However, the film becomes a paean to the times, as the film charts the disintegration of the Labour policies during and following the Thatcher years. Industries are first privatised and then largely closed down. The National Health Service is still being picked apart. The film ends on an optimistic note, showing demonstrations from Occupy, UK Uncut and Defend The NHS – suggesting that socialism in Britain is not as dead as it may seem.

Ken Loach has never been afraid to be polemical and there is no reason why he shouldn’t be, especially since the majority of major Hollywood films propagate pro-capitalist right-wing myths. The Spirit of ’45 is largely a portrait of left-wing achievements in post-war Britain. The film is entirely socialist in its outlook, as is Loach himself, and it makes a good case for what Britain once had and could/should have again. Primarily, the interviews are personal and frequently moving – such as the detail of one woman’s grandfather, who carried his acceptance letter for a council house around in his wallet until the day he died or the doctor who was able to tell a worried mother that from that day on (the day the NHS was established) she could receive health care for free. Indeed, the film’s greatest achievement is its ability to humanise the politics at work – this is not a film of political rhetoric, but a film of the stories of honest working people. The Spirit of ’45 does not support Attlee’s policies purely on principle, but because it can show a series of people whose lives were genuinely improved by them.

Awkwardly, however, The Spirit of ’45 jumps from the Festival of Britain of 1951, presented here as the successful culmination of Attlee’s reforms to bring pride back into Britain, straight into 1979 and Margaret Thatcher’s electoral victory. There are some awkward omissions, such as the Winter of Discontent of 1978-9, which brought Thatcher to victory and which remains a key reference point for those who defend her legacy. That this wave of strikes occurred during Jim Callaghan’s Labour government might scupper the film’s possibly simplistic narrative suggests that The Spirit of ’45 is much more of a propaganda piece than an active engagement of history. Elsewhere, critical voices are indeed heard, such as when one miner complains that, despite the nationalization of the mines, the same men were ultimately left in charge. However, these criticisms are made but not pursued, as if their mere inclusion was enough to make the film historically accurate. Similarly, though the film does mourn the destruction of the Thatcher years, it does little to criticize the turn that Labour took, becoming pseudo-Tories with New Labour under Tony Blair. Though The Spirit of ’45 is primarily about the achievements of “a Labour movement with a socialist policy” and how these were then destroyed, the omissions suggest an unwillingness to consider some of the unwieldy complexities of the time. As a result, the film will probably do little to convince a politically opposed audience and will probably not contribute much to the debate – aside, of course, from some powerful interviews. No matter how correct the film’s politics, it is a simplified story that works as a moving elegy or even as an ‘oral history’ but not as provocative political cinema.

Nevertheless, whatever the film’s effectiveness as political cinema, it remains a moving story of a time in which the political agenda was improving living conditions and giving workers rights. Sadly, the story seems foreign today, especially since the term ‘socialism’ is little heard, replaced by ‘benefit fraud’ and other reactionary terms used by a middle-class political establishment that has lost sight of the majority of the population. The Spirit of ’45 might not be an entirely useful film, but it remains an important one since it reminds us of what the priorities once were and how misguided they are now. The film ends with images of current protests and demonstrations, offering hope for a socialist future, though the film does not pretend that this will be easy or even likely.

Ultimately, the film is about the generation of the post-war years. The interviewees are largely older people who remember the nationalization of their particular industry or moving into their first council house. At the end of the film, they speak about the older generation’s responsibility to pass their stories on to the younger generation so that the fight for a fairer society might continue. It might prove the case that the ultimate worth of The Spirit of ’45 is that it has provided a vehicle for a lot of people whose stories do need to be heard. It is a simplistic film, yet there is little that is complicated about what these people want.

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