(2006) dir. Shane Meadows
Set in 1983 in England’s Midlands, and heavily under the shadow of the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina, This is England is a coming-of-age drama in the midst of nationalism and the rise of the National Front. A 12 year old boy, whose father perished in the war, is a lost soul at school, fighting kids and lonely until he meets up with a group of older, kindly skinheads. The film has the vibe of someone who grew up in this world, which one can guess is the case with director Shane Meadows (Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)).
Meadows has become the cinematic poet of England’s Midlands, capturing the language, sights and sounds of England’s neither North nor South center. And this film, being a period piece, captures the vibe of the early 1980’s with great fervor. Thomas Turgoose plays Shaun, the young boy of the single mother, yearning for his lost father, and gladly accepting a father figure that puts himself in the place.
His initial hook-up with the young skinheads includes a member who is of Jamaican descent and the ideology is more one of friendship and camaraderie, set to the sounds of Jamaican ska, getting his first kiss with a girl who looks like Boy George did back at that time. And through this, the sweetness is there. Even though his mum doesn’t appreciate him being sheared to the scalp, she recognizes the importance of these friends and what they could mean for this boy.
Unfortunately, the little gang is revisited by their older skinhead friend who has just gotten out of prison. He is a more dyed-in-the-wool racist, espousing nationalistic and racist rants, and dragging the kids to National Front meetings. Stephen Graham plays Combo, this leader, who is far from single-faceted, but who alienates a number of the group with his didacticism. Sadly, Sean finds his father figure in this man, pulled by his passionate rants against the government for sending soldiers to die in a meaningless war. And while he still finds friendship with his Jamaican friend, he finds himself caught in this world.
Ultimately, tragedy is due. And it comes unsurprisingly in a fit of great violence and sadness. And while this event changes and deeply effects them all, Sean does find his own rebellion against this racism.
The film is a naturalistic, moving, and believable drama, with strong performances from the whole cast. At times, it seems like something greater than the sum of its dramatic parts, but in the long run falls a tad short of making some greater point or statement, perhaps, than that of the experience of its child star. Meadows has a real sense of place and character and of the character and place of his world. And he embues the characters with a rich spate of emotions, not simplifying or reducing the complexity of the situation, the racist words of the skinheads, while violent and reactionary, come from somewhere, deep down, and not from a place of pure hatred but hurt. They are poor, ineffectual, passionate men, who have some genuine love and paternal friendship for some of their fellows.
It’s stronger than Dead Man’s Shoes, certainly, and makes me hope that Meadows continues to develop his craft and continues to make more films.