British filmmaker Ken Loach has never been one to hide his politics. In fact the throughline to his long, exemplary career, whether on TV or in theaters, whether documentary or narrative, whether small-scale domestic drama (“Sweet Sixteen,” “Kes,” “Ladybird, Ladybird”) or sweeping historical epic (“The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” “Land and Freedom”), has always been one of social awareness and overtly left-wing sensibilities. His characters are often working class people chafing against the injustice and disenfranchisement of their societal roles in the face of powerful contemporary or historical forces. And nowhere is this more in evidence than in his latest film, documentary “The Spirit of ‘45,” which details the rise and fall of the British welfare state: the post-war socialist program of social reform and nationalization of industry, and the subsequent partial or total dismantling of these moves under Thatcher.
The film, at least initially, is somewhat hampered by a rather uninspired format: its mix of talking head interviews and archive footage feels resolutely small-screen, and it takes some time before the collage of personal remembered anecdote and expert analysis builds up any real momentum. And, again in the first half hour or so, the film can seem so specific to the U.K. experience as to feel niche to outside viewers. But gradually its scope broadens and deepens, to build to a picture that is inarguably relevant to problems the whole world faces today. But what stops it from being a polemical screed is that Loach’s passion and idealism, and that of his subjects, are tempered by real pragmatism. The ideals of socialism here are not pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as Loach persuasively argues that they worked — though not without their flaws — but they really worked, and they could work again.
In his choice of subjects, Loach is impressively even-handed, peppering the longer segments from the ordinary people who had their lives changed during that period with occasional commentary from politicians, economists, and other cultural observers. But if the expert and professional analysis is responsible for widening the relevance of the film to the present day, and to a greater or lesser degree to the current socio-economic situation in almost every country in the world, it’s the stories of the older people who lived through these tumultuous times that give the film its considerable heart. So we hear about a man who until his dying day carried with him in his wallet the letter he got from the council to tell him he could pick up the keys to his house. We hear about the doctor who was suddenly allowed to treat a sick boy after the establishment of the National Health Service, and about the miner who, before the trades unions, had pulled the body of his friend from a collapsed shaft, because paid by the cartload of coal, none of the miners could afford the time it took to reinforce the struts properly.
The archive footage too is carefully chosen and often quite wonderful, putting a human face on the whole gamut from pre-war squalor and wartime devastation, through the optimism and social experimentalism of the late ’40s and ’50s, and then moving to scratchy video footage of the riots and civil unrest of the 1980s. Every story needs a villain, and if the film makes heroes of the post-war politicians and leaders who pioneered these socialist reforms (Aneurin Bevan of the NHS comes off as an especially fascinating and dedicated public servant), it finds its antagonist in the shape of Margaret Thatcher, and there is a real sense of grief and loss — the end of hope — to the segment covering the strike breaking and privatizations that characterized her time in power.
One of the final grace notes is one of the contributors arguing forcefully (and it’s really moving to see the passion which these people bring to their discussion of that period even now, after all these years — a sadly unusual depiction of the older generation as politically aware, relevant and engaged) that it is the responsibility of that older generation to educate the younger about this fascinating period in history. And that is clearly what Loach, himself born in 1936, having lived through all of these changes in the nation’s fortune and political outlook, wants to do. “The Spirit of ‘45” may not be, in style, a radical documentary, but it certainly succeeds in that ambition, and while to those on the opposite side of the political spectrum it will no doubt read as propagandist, in fact it really feels like it’s redressing an imbalance in the way we remember that period today. And that imbalance has affected our current attitudes more than we might think. With “socialism,” as a word and concept, often bizarrely stigmatized and almost taboo, especially in the U.S., it’s refreshing and instructive to get this intelligent and often moving account of ordinary lives made better by it. [B]