“This is England” is the coming of age, semi-autobiographical adolescent adventure of writer/director Shane Meadows. Set against a backdrop of the opening sequence establishing the landscape of people, places and events unfolding in 1983 – Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, early video games, the historic wedding of Charles and Di – the film tells the story of 12-year-old Shaun, (Thomas Turgoose) a diminutive, angry, alienated, ready-to-do battle young man whose dad has been killed in the Falklands War.
Ripe for friendship, Shaun encounters the local skinheads, a rather benign group of young men and their dolls, who just want to drink, smoke, party and commit minor acts of mischief. Shaun is immediately taken into the ranks of this equally disenfranchised group of harmless young thugs and is now part of a gang who totally accepts and includes him in their mostly silly pranks. In almost a ritualistic transformation, Shaun gets his buzz cut, a special shirt, trousers and finally the special shoes, officially becoming a skinhead.
The tone of the film changes from fun and games to a more sense of impending danger with the entrance of Combo, an older skinhead who takes Shaun under his hate-filled, racist-rhetoric wing and begins to move the gang toward a direction of much more serious actions. The verbal attacks by Combo against non-white members of English society directly parallels the attacks we hear today against illegal immigration. With phrases, like, “the jobs they are stealing from us,” one could almost forget this was taking place in a run-down coastal town in northern England in 1983.
This is England is a riveting film, brilliantly, almost lovingly, directed by Meadows, who elicited an extraordinary, mulit-layered performance from Turgoose. The rest of the cast works as a finely tuned ensemble, including Andrew Ellis (Gadget), Andrew Shim (Milky), Kieran Hardcastle (Kes), Joe Gilgun (Woody) and Jack O’Connell (Pukey Nicholls). Most outstanding is Stephen Graham’s Combo, a particularly explosive character, whose seething anger keeps your heart pumping a bit fast, and the very sweet Smell (Rosamund Hanson), who plays Sean’s warm, loving first girlfriend, adding the right touch of an unlikely, bordering on the bizarre, romance.
Finally, despite his desperate need to belong, Sean makes a decision that is indeed quite unexpected and puts a lovely bow on the closing scene. The film also serves as a reminder that hatred and bigotry lives on through the ages, and those in society who are poor, uneducated or even lonely are particularly vulnerable to the likes of a Combo brotherhood.
This is England is playing at the NuWilshire.