This Is England
George Bass 30/04/2007
Films about skinheads. Though many market themselves as a dissection of a boisterous yet alluring underculture, it's a sad fact that a lot of them appeal to the kind of audience they ultimately attempt to condemn. Romper Stomper, while boasting a scathing performance from a young Russel Crowe, went over a lot of shaved heads and was a big hit with the type of people who go abroad mainly to piss in foreign fountains. Few skinhead films acknowledge the pre-nationalist roots of the movement, before the trademark DMs and number none haircut were hijacked by the far-right. Step forward indie film maker Shane Meadows (the man behind the 2004 cult revenger chiller Dead Man's Shoes), who has succeeded in creating a film that not only shows how the skin scene originally embraced ethnic variety, but also how its cohesiveness and identity as a culture were slowly sapped by the clutches of the National Front while the country fell into a slump.
As with his previous films, This Is England continues Meadows' interest in the consequences of misplaced loyalty. This time, though, it's not just the characters and location that are the focus of the story, but the timeline. This is the director's first period piece, and the production design puts most big budget costume dramas to shame; the eclectic opening montage, a salute to all things 1983, has got more nostalgia pound for pound than a Friends Reunited car boot sale. The sight of a playground scrap broken up by a teacher who wastes no time in wading in to give the warring lads a stern clip round the ear will come as a shock to the Claims Direct generation of today.
The protagonist of the story is twelve-year-old Shaun Fields (a pseudonym so cryptic it'd make a Marvel superhero proud), who is something of an outcast among his peers: he's constantly ribbed for sporting a pair of windsock-like flares, and tends to go into one whenever someone mentions his Dad, who died while serving in the Falklands. He's perfectly painted by newcomer Thomas Turgoose, whose bright eyes and baby face bely his weighty acting talent, marking him out as a serious future contender. His performance has already landed the film a ten-minute standing ovation at the Rome Film Festival. Watch your back, Dakota Fanning.
Shaun seems to stumble for jape to scrape as the school term draws to a close, beaten down by loneliness and sarky jeers from the local lads. That is until he happens upon a gang of cheery teen skins who indoctrinate him into their lively posse with ceremonial braces, Ben Sherman and buzz-cut. This is all much to the initial concern of Shaun's widowed mum Cynthia (Jo Hartley, barely recognisable behind a turquoise jump-suit, rampant perm and some paperweight specs), who wastes no time in going down the caff and giving them all a good rollocking. However, in spite of a bumpy start, Shaun and his new mates are soon thick as thieves and having the time of their lives.
That all changes one night when the young Mr Fields is busy enjoying his first game of toolshed tongue-hockey with the lovely Smell (Rosamund Hanson), unaware of the sinister twosome that have just gatecrashed the party indoors. From here on in, Shaun's newfound senses of confidence and belonging are promptly revamped by the actions of an older skinhead, fresh from the nick and hungry for action. Stephen Graham gives the performance of a lifetime as the enigmatically repulsive Combo - a man whose belief that he is beyond redemption has left him volatile as a tray of nitroglycerin. By combination of genuine platonic love and reptile cunning, he strikes up a deep bond with the fatherless Shaun and goes about reprogramming his chirpy young swagger with fear and raw anger. This is not your ordinary down-the-line nutbar, and the character of Combo is one that commands every second of your attention like a vintage DeNiro performance. Graham's brooding brutality is testament to Meadows' ability to coax the best performance out of his craft, and both director and actor make Combo infinitely watchable, giving him a character arc as sleek and jagged as snipped tin. The sequence where he first crosses swords with Milky (Andrew Shim, best known as the titular figure from A Room For Romeo Brass), is genuinely uncomfortable, and a sign of the dark tangent that the director wants to show us.
It would be easy for Meadows to let the picture descend into Made In British History X fare, but any potential flippancy is kept at bay by a stark parochial realism, gritty as the tread on an Eddie Stobart lorry and with a heart big enough to match the engine. As Shaun drifts further and further away in a riptide of confusion and jingoistic pride, it seems impossible for him to be rescued. It's not long before he's out of his depth with the wrong crowd, mixing with some genuine predators. Frank Harper's restrained cameo as an NF militia corporal is nicely understated, showing us the monstrously calm pistons that drive the hate machine.
This Is England is more than just a coming-of-age film that happens to feature skinheads. It's a film about both the resolve and the frailty of the human condition, and how easily the people around us can reverse the polarity of our intentions. Ultimately, it's about not giving up on yourself or your mates, even when your outlook is skewed by a thick lens of imagined injustice. It packs a mean visual punch - Meadows' eye for capturing the aesthetics of a run-down regional town is as keen as ever - and the cinematography is masterfully scored by Ludovico Einaudi, whose heartfelt piano compositions are a fair match for Sigur Ros at their most sincere. Gavin Clarke's eloquent lo-fi balladry makes a welcome appearance in the final moments of the action, as a lone Shaun picks his way across a bleak shingle beach baring a St. George's Cross flag.
In short, this is a film that is powerful enough to catapult both the director and actors into the forefront of the British cinema circuit. Meadows has managed to copy his childhood experiences onto the screen with great sensitivity and aplomb, and has delivered a tale that you hope to God any angry young men don't walk out on halfway through. Though with performances as astute and engaging as the ones on display here, there's not much chance of that.