This is England
2007Director: Shane Meadows
Cast: Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Andrew Shim
have spent much of my life trying to figure out whether or not the Britain of my youth was a nightmare or just an awfully depressing, pre-apocalyptic wasteland. This Is England perfectly jogs the memory and, to my dismay, this is just how it used to look: a grey, concrete, and abandoned world of greasy fish and chip wrappers, cold tea, and stray dogs with soggy chins. There’s a purpose to this ladling of depressing scenarios—the sparseness of the environment offers a kind of freedom. Thatcher’s government largely abandoned unemployed youth, leaving them to their own devices. As in the colorless asylum of THX-1138, utter despair is the only departure point from which escape is possible.
Shane Meadows’ coming-of-age tale, set in the depressing cavities of the Midlands in the early ‘80s, follows the fascination of one boy, Shaun (remarkable newcomer Thomas Turgoose), with an informal group of charismatic skinheads. Shaun searches for a strong male influence to replace his father, who has been killed in the widely derided Falklands war. The vigorous entertainment of the gang is harmless enough at first (smashing up empty houses, getting stoned), but things take a turn for the worse with the arrival of Combo, played at a menacing pitch by Stephen Graham. Straight out of jail, Combo shapes the group into foot soldiers for the National Front (Britain’s most vile and militant right wing mouth-piece). Shaun sees this seemingly fearless figure as an exciting replacement for the father he misses so dearly.
The routines and rituals of the group offer Shaun a chance to fill his life with color—it’s more of an opportunity than a danger. Unlike Anthony in Dead Man’s Shoes, his experience isn’t entirely negative. Part of him, perhaps every part of him, blossoms within the group: he discovers girls, trust, violence, hate, humility, disappointment, and, finally, courage. Who knows what Meadows’ own experiences with skinheads were? Without wanting to second-guess his motivations for focusing on the group, one thing seems clear: he finds something unmistakably vital and essential about being involved in this kind of intense scenario, in trusting a body larger than your own. Perhaps he is exercising his own demons. If so, the result is a seemingly personal and heartfelt film—at once an elegy and a harsh judgement on the complex scene.
Meadows is negotiating interesting territory here, focusing his narrative on the undesirable outskirts of a much stereotyped time and place. The director has a fine eye and picks up on the seductive iconography of the subculture: the Dr. Martens boots, braces, Ben Sherman shirts, the soulful music and overriding poise. The visual design is tremendous and woefully accurate. A lapsed skinhead himself, the director is at pains to show that the movement’s roots originate from the rudeboy culture of the West Indies, and was not always associated with racist violence. The skinheads were only exploited and infiltrated much later by the National Front, who like many before them, took advantage of the disillusionment of youth. Indeed, Woody and his gang, including Milky (the only black member), are not just good friends, but an extended family who deal with the poverty and deprivation around them with an unexpected and admirable dignity. It is Combo who ruins the circle, determined to define the world through division and conflict. Graham’s performance is uncompromising and frightening. Perhaps he, more than anyone else here, inspires sympathy: groping so desperately for something to believe in, he is a waste of a life and he knows it. If you need a reference point, think Ray Winstone in Nil by Mouth, a simultaneously violent but repentant wreck of a man.
As in Meadows’ earlier films, he explores awkward and dangerous men struggling to find a place in the world, and the vulnerable young boys ready to befriend them. There is some kind of connection between children and the dispossessed that’s touched on in works of fiction from Huckleberry Finn to Spirited Away and from The Kid to Tideland. Perhaps it’s the contrast between an innocent curiosity and a broken search for meaning that draws these types together: a relationship built on wonder and vulnerability. The authentic tale conjures up associations with other impressionable children of the big screen. Strangely enough, it works as a kind of Pan’s Labyrinth: Shaun is trying to solve the riddle of loss, working his way through a hideous maze of dubious idols and alluring beasts. However, Shaun, stationed firmly in reality, doesn’t have the luxury of fantasy; the emotional depth of the young actor is staggering. The viewer can’t help but feel for him, but his abrasive character never allows pity to take hold. It’s unusual for such a young character to be so fully rounded and considered. Meadows has a penchant for improvisation and the impulse pays off here as his cast is more than equal to the challenge, peppering the scripted dialogue with an authentic and naturalistic delivery of smirks and stutters. Such a flow of realism renders the film both a wonderful social-documentary and also a well-crafted work of fiction.
If the last film I reviewed here, Magicians, made me despair at the British film industry, then This is England is its immediate saviour. This is essential viewing and Meadows convinces me that the film could only be made in England and only be made by him, so fully has he realized this project. This is England shows just what a simple, well-written script has to offer and I hope the production companies in Britain take note. Meadows has been an uneven director thus far but this near masterpiece is undeniably powerful and certainly the best British film in quite a few years.
This is England is currently playing in wide release in the UK, and will be released in the US on July 25th.