Movie review: The Spirit of '45

By Peter Calder

Britain between the wars was a poverty stricken society.
Britain between the wars was a poverty stricken society.

Verdict: Fascinating history with profound modern relevance

The 28th cinematic film by the veteran social realist Loach takes a nostalgic look at a period in Britain when the word "socialism" was a rallying cry and not an insult. At the same time, and more pungently, it challenges present-day Britons to find some of that same spirit.

"Socialism" is the word proudly uttered by Clement Attlee as he proclaims victory in the 1945 election, barely two months after the end of the war in Europe.

At this remove, it's easy to forget several key things about this time: that Britain between the wars was a miserable, inequitable poverty stricken society; that soldiers returned from service determined that the collective organisation that had defeated Hitler would end social injustice; and, as a result, that Churchill, for all his inspiring wartime leadership, became seen, the instant the war ended, as an aloof patrician.

Using archive footage and present-day interviews with both survivors and historical observers of that time (there is no voiceover narration), Loach compiles a fascinating record of a society in flux.

That flux, of course, continued over the succeeding half-century as the post-war wave of nationalisations was swept back with the Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite passion for privatisation. Now the NHS is under threat.

Audiences here will find plenty they recognise in this narrative, even when the pamphleteer's enthusiasm makes Loach forget some of the historian's obligations. Stirring quotes appear on the screen, with no indication as to who said them and when.

More confusingly, the viewer must constantly calculate the age of interviewees to work out whether what is being said relies on memory, second-hand report or modern academic study. The uniform use of black and white (colour is saved for a sunlit coda) compounds the latter problem.

But anyone with the faintest interest in politics or history will find this very absorbing.


Director: Ken Loach
Running time: 95 mins
Rating: G
Opens: Boxing Day
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