Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War play an important part in this film, more symbolically than anything. When one relates to the early 1980s Britain one can’t exclude the Prime Minister because everyone had and has violently positive or negative feelings about her influence. However, director Shane Meadows doesn’t fully succeed in trying to link the real story of the film to the effects of Thatcherism on society. That framework seems to be there as some sort of excuse for the bad things that happen to the people and culture portrayed. Meadows’s picture is nevertheless quite powerful.
It’s the director’s most talked-about film since his Midlands trilogy; he has looked back to his own upbringing and a lot of what happens in the story are things he experienced. The year is 1983, the year after the Falklands War was fought. 12-year-old Shaun’s (Thomas Turgoose) father was killed in combat and he and his mother are still trying to get used to their new lives. Shaun is bullied at school, but finds new friends in a group of skinheads led by the amiable Woody (Joe Gilgun). Soon the kid has his head shaved and starts wearing the trademark boots, shirt and jeans with suspenders. His mother reluctantly agrees to it; this was after all a time when skinheads were not synonymous with racists. That changes when a former comrade, Combo (Stephen Graham), is released from prison and becomes a charismatic figure in the group. He soon reveals a racist agenda and forces everyone to take a stand.
That doesn’t sit well with Woody (especially since one person in the group is black); a few of his friends depart with him, but not Shaun. Combo’s appeal to Shaun’s patriotism in the wake of his father’s death as well as the campaign to blame foreigners seem right to the kid who is easily manipulated. However, learning a lesson or two about the people he chooses to stay with becomes a painful rite of passage for Shaun.
Turgoose is sensational
The cast is very strong, but the sensational ingredient here is young Turgoose. He’s just one of those kids who have never acted but show up to an audition and blow the competition away; he has the personality to make the cheeky Shaun come alive and the weary-looking face to make us believe in his suffering after losing his father. His performance is outstanding. Meadows shows affection for his characters; this is a world he knows and used to be a part of and he can see the human being inside a hardened, racist criminal like Combo… but he doesn’t shy away from the tragic consequences of knowing and supporting such a person.
This is how Meadows’s film is valuable – as a first-hand look at a culture that perhaps wasn’t ruined from the start, but easily fell prey to racism. It certainly isn’t all of England, but a quaint part of it.
The director is probably a fan of François Truffaut, another filmmaker who evoked childhood in some of his movies, most notably The Four Hundred Blows (1959). The final sequence of this film is staged in a way that is similar to the ending of the Truffaut classic. Having Shaun look straight into the camera is a way of breaking the illusion. More than anything, Meadows wants his film to be relevant to our time as well.
This is England 2007-Britain. 103 min. Color. Produced byMark Herbert. Written and directed by Shane Meadows. Cast: Thomas Turgoose (Shaun), Stephen Graham (Combo), Jo Hartley (Cynth), Joe Gilgun, Andrew Shim, Vicky McClure… Jack O’Connell.
Trivia: Followed by three miniseries, starting with This is England ’86 (2010).
BAFTA: Best British Film.
Last word: “Very few people’s lives just work as a biography, as a sequence of events that make up all the scenes in order – but yes, it was exactly that set-up [for me]. The names, the people, a very similar sized gang. I got into the skinheads through my sister going out with one – he taught me about the movement, got me into reggae, and took me out hunting in big gangs. So the first half of the film is completely and utterly as it was. Then the split kind of happened. It arrived slightly differently. It wasn’t so acute as to happen in that one flat. It was actually a fight over my sister between two skinheads. Whereas with the first skinhead it was all parties and fun, this other guy [the Combo figure] was the one who had been to prison and came in with a much darker, more political idea.” (Meadows, Film 4)