This is England

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Dean Rogers/IFC First Take
Shane Meadows/United Kingdom 2007

Writer-director Shane Meadows’ latest film This is England is both a social realist tale of one boy’s troubled rite of passage in the vein of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and a wistful look at early 1980s’ England.

Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is a lonely boy living in the Midlands whose father died in the Falklands War, and who is being raised solely by his mother. On his way home from school one day, Shaun encounters a group of skinheads led by Woody (Joe Gilgun). Breaking from the stereotypical image of skinheads, Meadows does not depict this group as a bunch of violent, racist thugs; instead, they are friendly and welcome Shaun into their gang. Very quickly, Shaun settles comfortably into the group, and soon, he has his own head shaved and adopts the skinhead dress code. But one night, the arrival of Combo (Stephen Graham) – an older skinhead and former acquaintance of Woody who has just been released from prison – shatters the gang’s idyllic life.

Casually throwing around extreme right-wing rhetoric and racial insults, Combo apparently doesn’t recognize or care about the insensitivity or inappropriateness of his behavior (especially considering that one member of the group is black). Combo later reveals his views on the state of the nation and what constitutes being English in an offensive speech that wrenches the close-knit group of friends apart. Those that are disgusted by Combo’s ideas choose to side with Woody, but the rest of them stay with Combo – including the impressionable Shaun. Combo exploits Shaun’s love for his deceased father, and the older skinhead quickly becomes a kind of surrogate father for Shaun. Unfortunately, Combo’s racist attitudes start to rub off on Shaun, who is danger of becoming a younger version of Combo.

As in his previous films, here Meadows focuses on a small group of working-class characters living in a close-knit community. Whereas some filmmakers would turn these people into caricatures, Meadows empathizes with everyone represented, including the seemingly irredeemable Combo. Rather than simply portraying Combo as a one-dimensional racist thug, Meadows makes us understand that the older skinhead sees a younger version of himself in Shaun and is eager to nurture the young boy like a son. Meadows also ensures that we recognize the toughness of Combo’s life in prison and elicits our sympathy when he reveals that Combo had a romantic fixation on Lol (Vicky McClure), with whom he spent a night before going to prison. However, what Combo remembers as a wonderful night with a girl he cared for is recollected by Lol as just a rather sordid and forgettable encounter. And in a film full of terrific effective and naturalistic performances, Meadows’ use of makes full use of Turgoose, whose soulful eyes show rage one minute and are full of sadness the next.

Meadows also clearly understands the period in which the film is set. The opening scenes present us with a montage of clips from the 1980s that include the juxtaposition of Roland Rat (a TV puppet character who was popular at the time and is fondly remembered) with Margaret Thatcher (a prime minister who was popular at the time, but who is not so fondly remembered). By placing icons of childhood fun (Roland Rat, the Series and the Rubik’s Cube) alongside the more serious images associated with adulthood (Thatcher, the Falklands War), Meadows reminds us that politics as well as pop culture shape people’s lives, and that it’s often the pleasures derived from pop culture that help us deal with the stress and pain of everyday life. Another filmmaker might have simply resurrected these pop-culture artifacts of a former time in order to wallow in nostalgia. Meadows, on the other hand, reminds us that along with the fun and games associated with growing up, there were serious things going on in England that affected everyone. This notion is personified in and personalized by Shaun’s father, who absence does not negate the profound effect he has had on Shaun.

As with his previous films, Meadows’ technique in This is England appears to be a straightforward master shot/reverse shot style with no flashy stylistics. However, this unfussy and direct shooting style results in a sense of immediacy and authenticity that is matched by the remarkable performances he obtains from the cast. Meadows also has a knack for finding beauty in seemingly unremarkable landscapes and environments. In places that others filmmakers would see as mundane, Meadows highlights things that others would simply fail to notice. He reveals the potential for empty fields, sea shores and derelict buildings to be seen as theme parks by kids with vivid enough imaginations. Even a shot of a tree billowing in the wind proves to be a captivating detail amidst an otherwise nondescript housing estate. Overall, This is England could be seen as both a semi-autobiographical work as well as a summation of Meadows’ film work to date.

© 2006 Martyn Bamber. All rights reserved.

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