This Is England
From its opening frames, Shane Meadows' This Is England aims to live up to its apt title. It channel-surfs through glimpses of early '80s British telly, lingering especially on the two iconic women of that era: Diana Spencer and Margaret Thatcher. It also intersperses footage of the Falklands War with domestic anti-immigrant violence, foreboding what’s to come with a subversive couch-potato ease. The clips suggest we'll get a deep sociological look at Thatcherite Britain, and indeed, This Is England delivers a cross-section as sharp and lasting as a guillotine.
Centering on twelve-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), the film thrusts us into a quaint, desolate town. The walls are crumbling, the housing is drab, and most prominently, an abandoned building wears the scathing editorial, "Maggie is a twat." It sets the mood immediately, which Shaun is all too quick to reflect. With his father slain in Falklands combat and bullies at his back, Shaun droops around mopily and defeatedly. But like his analogue Liam in Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen, he also harbors a dangerous rage and a profound confusion. He'd fight the world just as soon as he'd fall victim to its cheapest tricks.
Shaun and the gangOne day, a pack of skinheads befriends him at the instruction of its leader Woody (Joe Gilgun). A lanky telephone pole with a branded forehead, Woody looks like a cross between Joe Strummer and Daniel Day-Lewis. By letting Shaun join his group of misfits, he gives the boy his first place to belong. When the guys all smash the contents of an empty house, they offer Shaun an outlet for his anger. When they have Shaun shave his head and dress in their uniform—suspenders, Doc Martens, Ben Sherman shirt—they also provide him with a standard to conform to. Shaun’s adolescence is so quickly accelerated that he even lands his first girlfriend. Nicknamed Smell, she wears clownish Siouxsie Sioux makeup and is twice Shaun’s size. Their relationship, like almost everything about the clique, is endearing, but also troubling and weirdly creepy.
It’s in portraying this ragtag group that Meadows shines most as a director. He’s said that Shaun’s story is semi-autobiographical (hence the similarity in names) and the level of details he nails shows exactly why writing what you know is such a truism. In depicting the kids’ fashions, haircuts, conversations, behaviors and music tastes, Meadows transposes his coming-of-era experiences with striking confidence. His film in these sections feels so authentic that it resembles a lost document like Killer of Sheep more than a nostalgic period piece. Beyond any of the deeper issues and political critiques the film offers, the potent joy of time travel and the evocation of setting alone make This is England worth seeing.
However, all that color and vivacity of youth is undercut halfway through the movie. Bullishly headbutting into the narrative, Combo (Stephen Graham), Woody’s ex-friend and hardened ex-con, instantly splits the group apart. With his own stores of unresolved fury, he begins finding recruits for his anti-immigration group. He proves hard to turn down, asserting in every scene what a well-crafted villain he is. Combo is persuasive, even charming, exerting the unctuous but magnetic authority of a cult leader. He has a nuclear temper but an unexpected sensitivity too, and it’s impossible to guess with which he'll react. Sensing a kinship, he offers Shaun membership in his even more tightly knit community. That the community revolves around dogmatic British nationalism, violent intimidation against Pakistanis, and unbridled hate doesn’t faze Shaun a bit.
Meadows is good in conveying the attraction of the protectionist mentality, never reducing its proponents to cartoons. But he also shows that their rage is more the product of their personal failures, their own disappointments and shortcomings. Unfortunately, as the subjects get heavier, the film starts to exhibit shortcomings of its own. There's the tendency to underscore climactic scenes with a cloying, facile piano. Because Graham's performance is so singularly dynamic and commanding, Combo also can't help dominating the later action. Combo's dramatic arc is just as interesting, but it renders Shaun a mere background player in his own story. Finally, the ending, in what seems to be a misguided homage to The 400 Blows, fizzles as an unearned copout. Meadows is so talented at presenting the mess--emotional, architectural, ideological, moral--that his attempts at sanitization really jut out. This Is England ultimately still works as a startling, vibrant leap into both a preteen life and an era, but one thing it should never attempt to be is clean.
This Is England is out on DVD now.
* MP3: "This Is England" - The Clash from Cut The Crap [Buy it]