Berlin 2013: ‘The Spirit of ’45’ review

One of only a handful of high profile British films featuring at this year’s 63rd Berlinale (more’s the pity), Ken Loach returns to the documentary fray this year with The Spirit of ’45 (2013), representing something of a labour of love for its acclaimed director. Exploring Britain’s sociopolitical evolution from the poverty and uncertainty of the post-war period through to the bitterly divisive Thatcher regime, Loach has left few stones unturned in his quest to both celebrate our nation’s steely endurance, whilst at the same time highlighting some of the key decisions that, time and time again, threatened the livelihoods of millions.

Taking its title after the pivotal year of 1945, where unity and a clear vision of a better tomorrow lifted a people still counting the cost of a cataclysmic global conflict, Loach’s new film sensitively depicts the hardship faced by a multitude of Britons through a careful concoction of talking head interviews and stock material. With near-unprecedented access to our superbly maintained regional and national archives, The Spirit of ’45 finds our ‘green and pleasant’ land rising from the ashes of warfare through groundbreaking national health reforms and affordable housing, before once again slumping into decay and class inequality during the turbulent 1980s.

Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Loach’s magnificent career to-date will be able to single out clear links back to his expansive catalogue of narrative work, with its focus on working-class life and the rigours that inevitably come with it. A great proportion of his latest outing deals with those most greatly affected by Britain’s tumultuous recent history, with interviewees predominately from hard-up communities in northern and welsh mining towns and cities. Anecdotes regaled for viewers range from the heartbreaking to the humorous, yet, importantly, never feel overly nostalgic or schmaltzy. What does pervade The Spirit of ’45, however, is a real sense that we may be heading backwards rather than forwards.

For audience members who may not remember first-hand the events covered in Loach’s tub-thumping doc, there’s certainly a great deal of discourse to digest – for those more familiar with the depicted eras, however, this could easily be as much a hindrance as a help. There’s also not a great deal to say about The Spirit of ’45’s technical construction, following as it does a tried-and-tested documentary rhythm of interview/footage/interview/footage. However, as previously mentioned, when you have one of the world’s largest film archives at the disposal of one of British cinemas best exponents, it’s difficult not to come away with something both compelling and meaningful.

A welcome change of pace for Loach – though hardly a leap forward for documentary filmmaking as a whole – The Spirit of ’45’s winning blend of spirited interviewees and iconic national imagery help to cover up the cracks where necessary. Though its staunch political stance may be clearly defined throughout, a far more human (you could even call it ‘Loachian’) story of resilience and camaraderie thankfully lies within.

The 2013 Berlin Film Festival runs from 7-17 February. For more of our Berlinale coverage, simply follow this link.

Daniel Green