"Old socialists never die"; seems to say Ken Loach with each new film he makes, and there's nothing wrong with that statement even if at times the veteran British director seems to be clinging on to a mode of engagé filmmaking whose edge has by now gone somewhat off. Maybe that's why I still have great fondness for Land and Freedom, the tale of a British idealist in the Spanish Civil War where Mr. Loach adroitly shows both the idealism and how time erodes it.
His belief in the betterment of society, as admirable as it can be at times apparently naïf, underlines every single frame of The Spirit of '45, a handcrafted documentary about the British General Election of 1945 and how the Labour Party victory in it brought a wind of change to a post-imperial Britain still reeling from the hardships and destruction of WWII. Clement Attlee's triumph seemed to carry a whiff of true socialism, attempting to extend the spirit of unity and resilience that lasted throughout the conflict, aiming at a better world borne out of the lessons learned from 1939 to 1945 and of the desire to reach a common goal of a fairer society.
Propelled by a combination of meticulously researched archival footage and new interviews with contemporaries of the election and modern-day historians, The Spirit of '45 doesn't hide its admiration for that sense that, for the very first time, Britain was no longer a strict classist society, but neither does it pretend that development was picture-perfect. And its portrayal of that peaceful transition by purely democratic means is also meant as a sort of "beacon" in the complicated social landscape the world finds itself in today, a proof of concept that yes, democracy can lead to improvements in the system.
For all that, the fact that Mr. Loach devotes an entire third of his film to the methodical dismantling of the victories of 1945 by the Tory government elected in 1979 with Margaret Thatcher seems somewhat disproportionate - not that it's not important to say it, just that there's a lot more the viewer wants to know about the past that is given too short a shrift. That, however, should not diminish the strength of the portrait Mr. Loach paints of a world that for once truly lived up to higher ideals, or the fact that "idealism" needn't always a misguided, naïve hope. That the director is dealing with real events and real people who lived through them gives The Spirit of '45 an emotion, an honesty and a resonance that has not been able as forthcoming in some of his latest fictions.
THE SPIRIT OF '45
United Kingdom 2012
Director and screenwriter Ken Loach; cinematographer Stephen Standen (colour); composer George Fenton; archivist Jim Anderson; editor Jonathan Morris; producers Rebecca O'Brien, Kate Ogborn and Lisa Marie Russo; production companies British Film Institute, Filmfour, Sixteen Films and Fly Film
Screened January 30th 2015, Lisbon (distributor screener)
The Spirit of '45 Trailer from Dogwoof Documentary on Vimeo.