The Spirit of ’45 marks accomplished director Ken Loach’s return to documentary making for the first time in almost a decade, in what proves to be an impassioned, bittersweet feature that admires a prodigious community spirit that swept the nation in the wake of World War Two, and how such a spirit has been slowly dissipating ever since, as we build towards contemporary Britain.
With the war over and the National Health Service being established, Britain ended the 1940s in a jubilant mood, as an unprecedented – and somewhat requisite – feeling of hope engulfed the people of Britain, presented here sensitively using a handful of talking head interviews with those old enough to remember such a time, and a series of footage dug up from the archives. To counter-balance this, Loach also takes an inquisitive and accusatory look at how that has all changed, particularly at the hands of Margaret Thatcher, and with the privatisation of the NHS beckoning, The Spirit of ’45 proves to be a documentary of rather pertinent timing, celebrating a spirit that could do with being resurrected today.
It’s certainly interesting to see Loach delve into his own familiar territory yet in documentary form, as he often depicts fictionalised accounts of working class Britain, with Thatcher proving to be the almighty antagonist in so many of his productions; and this is no different, sitting comfortably alongside his usual work – and if these themes are to be explored in a documentary, you wouldn’t want anyone but Loach at the helm.
From a housekeeping perspective, Loach excels, with the seamless editing together of so much archive, as Loach manages to collate enough video footage to tell his story succinctly, and in perfect order. However by bringing the film up to date and ending on modern themes – although benefiting in a sense as it brings some context – it does detract from the timeless feeling that does exist in this title. This is not just a celebration of a nation united, but also the tragedy of a nation broken.
The film is presented in black and white, much of this being due to the fact the footage simply isn’t available in colour. However Loach intelligently employs a consistent black and white aesthetic, even portraying modern footage in the same format. Such a technique is effective as it helps bring the two different eras together, uniting 1945 with today, and showing that people, inherently, are fundamentally unchanged.
The interviews remain the finest aspect to this feature, as hearing of such a time straight from those who experienced it is simply fascinating, particularly when they are able to draw comparisons from 1945 to a Britain post-Thatcher. Also, and although this fact is somewhat harsh, those old enough to have lived in 1945 and who are able to recollect their memories from such a time, are getting older still, and it’s vital to catch them before the generation is lost. Loach has captured their views for posterity – an essential and significant achievement.
The Spirit of ’45 is an important piece of cinema to go and see, and one that truly represents the essence of Britain. Nonetheless – and this remains the biggest downfall of all – this feature would benefit from being a television documentary. It simply doesn’t warrant a theatrical release as it’s not quite grand enough in cinematic scale, not to mention the fact that with a showing on the television it would guarantee a wider audience, and this certainly deserves to be seen.