Of the many filmmakers working in Britain today, Shane Meadows can be seen as the only one making films about Britain. With “This Is England”, he transports the viewer into the seedy world of inner-city gangs, just as he did a decade ago with “TwentyFourSeven”. However, the world of skinheads and working-class thugs is a world that Meadows knows all too well. “This Is England” is a blunt and realistic retelling of his childhood experiences as part of a skinhead gang. He paints a picture of 1980s England with a strange mixture of fond nostalgia and abject glumness, begging the viewer to ask: “What is England?”
The film starts with 12-year old Shawn Field (an obvious Shane Meadows pseudonym) confiding in a group of skin-headed teenagers after being bullied at school. Finding friends within the gang, he soon dons the mob colours and joins them in their nefarious activities. However, when the older, overtly racist skinhead Combo is released from prison and joins the gang, the natural camaraderie of the group is broken. The gang disbands, but Shawn sides with Combo and his troops. Combo warps his impressionable mind, and as time goes by, Shawn begins to blame all of his problems on immigrants and non-whites. Finding a father figure in Combo, Shawn sticks close by his side as the gang’s actions escalate from bad to worse.
There is a lot going on in Meadows’ “This is England”. Despite its fairly snappy 100-minute running time, many themes are explored that surely provide fodder for further rumination. Traditional British values, the family unit, the allure of joining a gang and mob-mentality racism are all called into question. However, Meadows handles them with the lightest of touches, and unlike other racism-themed films such as “American History X”, Meadows does not attempt to justify or rationalise his characters’ actions or beliefs, nor does he attempt to deliver any sort of message to the viewer. He simply tells the story as it would be seen through Shawn’s eyes — as it was seen through his own eyes back then.
This technique gives “This Is England” a gritty and frank sense of realism. However, what make the film 100% believable are the performances. The cast is stellar, which is doubly impressive given that they are composed mostly of amateurs and unknowns (although fans of Meadows will spot a few familiar faces from “Dead Man’s Shoes”). The young Thomas Turgoose gives an incredible performance as Shawn, giving the older actors a run for their money. Jo Hartley is brilliantly restrained as Shawn’s mother, and Andrew Shim, Joseph Gilgun and Kieran Hardcastle make up a credible skinhead gang.
However, it is Steven Graham who steals the show as the psychotic and racist Combo. Throughout the film, Graham’s Combo consistently walks the line between charismatic charm and inexplicable psychosis in a manner that is frighteningly convincing. Frankly, I’m surprised Graham hasn’t received some sort of accolade for his performance in “This is England”, because making a character like Combo seem wholly believable requires skill that few actors possess.
It’s hard to find fault with “This Is England”; perhaps under close scrutiny the film’s imperfections will become apparent. It could be said that the characters’ back stories (particularly Combo’s) are not explored enough. But that is easily excused with the knowledge that we are only seeing these characters as a young Shane Meadows saw them back then. We get only brief glimpses into their lives, and are left to wonder what made them the way they are, and what will become of them. If “This is England” was made by a Japanese or Korean filmmaker, it would have run at least two hours long, but that perhaps misses the point. Meadows keeps it short, giving himself just enough time to tell us his story and no more.
I said earlier that the viewer has to ask, “What is England?” by the time the credits roll. To be honest, I think Shane Meadows asks himself that same question. He comes across as a man who has a love-hate relationship with his country — a man with a strange sense of national pride, yet feels betrayed by his homeland. The issues of racism and hardship he addresses in the film are relevant today. “This Is England” is unashamedly English, with no aspirations of downplaying its nationality for an international audience. This is a powerful, bold, truthful and moving film, and is British cinema at its best.
Shane Meadows (director) / Shane Meadows (screenplay)
CAST: Thomas Turgoose … Shaun
Stephen Graham … Combo
Jo Hartley … Cynthia Fields
Andrew Shim … Milky
Vicky McClure … Lol
Joseph Gilgun … Woody
Perry Benson … Meggy