Film review: The Spirit of '45 - Mind the gap inKen Loach's impassioned plea for a return to post-war unity


Ned Roberts
Saturday 16 March 2013 20:15
Poignant: Archive footage of the 1930s in Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45
Poignant: Archive footage of the 1930s in Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45

An angry miner demands: "Who is it who tells the police to beat me – a working man?" Cut mischievously to a clip of Margaret Thatcher raising her hand as if to reply: "I do."

Ken Loach's documentary The Spirit of '45 is an impassioned call for a return to the public unity of the post-war years. Drawing on archive footage and contemporary interviews with dockers, miners, nurses, politicians and economists, Loach charts the nationalisation of our public services, and their subsequent privatisation. The interviewees provide poignant anecdotes about the poverty of the 1930s, and the renewed sense of purpose and optimism after Labour's landslide victory of 1945. It feels like a history lesson – an entertaining one, certainly – with dates and quotes spelt out on screen. Loach brings us up to date with stills of modern soup kitchens and the Occupy movement camped outside St Paul's. It's Occupy, Loach clearly believes, who are the heirs to the spirit of '45.

Stylistically, the film is a success. The awkward disjuncture often felt in archive documentaries – the constant switch between fuzzy black-and-white and high-definition colour – is solved by the blanket use of monochrome. But it's as a history lesson that the film comes up short. Most glaring is the nearly 30-year gap between Clement Attlee's government and Thatcher's election. In Loach's film these years don't exist. In his defence, Loach would no doubt point to the year in the film's title. To focus on the years of nationalisation and privatisation makes narrative and dramatic sense. But where are the dissenting voices? And where did this overwhelming public spirit go?

Obviously Loach doesn't want, or need, a riposte. As a propaganda piece, as a vehement call to arms, an angry swipe at the policies of both main political parties, his film strikes home. By turns moving, angering, and inspiring, Spirit of '45 is in fact a very personal plea. And yet we are left with a sense that we have only been told half the story.

There's certainly a complete story in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (Don Scardino, 100 mins, 15 **), but one so well-worn that it struggles to hold your attention to the end. Steve Carell stars as Burt, an outlandish and egotistical magician who, together with his childhood friend, Anton (Steve Buscemi), has a theatrical residence on the Vegas Strip.

We join the story just as the pair's moment has faded – men in sparkly suits thrusting swords through ladies in boxes no longer attracts the big bucks. The new craze is for street magician Steve Gray, played with zany relish by Jim Carrey. Adding to Burt's malaise is the breakdown of his friendship with Anton.

Soon penniless and pathetic, Burt finds himself on the road to redemption – by this point a very familiar road. The romance between Burt and his vapid assistant (Olivia Wilde) drums home the sense that this is big-budget comedy by numbers. Buscemi also feels oddly miscast, but then the script doesn't offer him much to wrangle with, save for an incongruous skit in Cambodia sending up lame celebrity charity missions. No food parcels for these starving children, just a free magic kit. But there are chuckles in goofy parodies of David Copperfield and the endurance stunts of David Blaine. Anton and Burt attempt to regain the limelight by living in a suspended Perspex box. They last 10 minutes.

Critic's Choice

Steven Soderbergh bows out of cinema (allegedly) with a fiendishly involving psychological drama of sex, lies and pharmaceuticals – Side Effects, starring Rooney Mara and Jude Law. Meanwhile, in the enjoyable Sundance hit Robot and Frank, Frank Langella's elderly thief finds a novel use for a mechanical butler.

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