Film Review #140: This is England
2006/2007 US DVD
Director: Shane Meadows
Cast: Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Rosamund Hanson
It’s one of those shabby, low-ceilinged country bars, out of the way down a dirt road with no traffic, that you’d reach after a drive through slow, monotonous rain blurring fields edged with scrub trees. In the muddy yard, men with shaved heads and black leather and tattoos on their faces mill around, then go respectfully silent when the guest candidate arrives. Inside, before posters for the National Front party, keeping his topcoat on against the damp and the dirt, he rails, “Our country has been stolen.” His wind-up draws cheers: “There is a forgotten word, a forbidden word – I want to revive the word Englishmen.”
In his audience, dragged way out here from his small town home along with some other new “troops” by the persuasive, unstable Combo (Stephen Graham), 11-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), still grieving the father he lost to war and thrilled that schoolyard bullies now avoid him, is so far a willing convert.
This year US movies have examined the volatile, double-edged hero worship that needy and impressionable young men have for violent criminals as one facet of the Westerns revival – think Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward… and Ben Foster’s Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma. Indeed the template for that specific longing and frustration available in the genre’s revisionist incarnations may be part of its contemporary appeal, even fifteen years ago in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, with the self-styled Scholfield Kid running after Eastwood’s retired gunslinger. Although British director Shane Meadows has visited the romance of the Western to great satiric effect in his riff on Sergio Leone, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002), here he goes straight to the more recent parallels of his own youth, letting back-country pub echo the frontier in more muted ways.
What goes around, comes around. This is England is set in 1983 in the English Midlands, home territory of the National Front, a far-right party founded in 1967 that opposed immigration, multicultural policies and membership in the UN and NATO. Ronald Reagan’s friend Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister. Though Thatcher’s own rise and her heartily conservative policies at first deflated support for the extremist National Front, by 1983 it’s making a come-back. It’s a little more than a year since the end of what Meadows calls “another pointless war,” England’s invasion of the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina, made vivid by archival footage of horrific battle injuries book-ending the film. Unemployment stands at about 3 ½ million. There’s a racist-tinged resurgence of skinhead gangs (more militant in prisons, where Combo’s been) – ironic, since Jamaica’s ska and reggae music had heavily influenced early skinhead culture – plus increased hate crimes and noisy demonstrations across the land against newcomers from Commonwealth countries such as Pakistan.
This is England walks some razor edges. First, it is that rare film whose story is set just far enough away in time and place to take the defensive edge off watching it, long enough to let the parallels with our own day sink in. This 2006 film finally reached US theaters in August and released on DVD last month. Because it portrays scenes of extreme violence and racist invective, it had difficulty initially in England getting cleared so adolescents – arguably a major target audience – could see it. But it’s also that rare film which makes a clear distinction between accounting for behavior and approving it.
Meadows – now in his mid-30s and still shaving his head – says his main ambition at age 11 was going to prison. Instead, he makes movies set in the small towns of his native Midlands, often containing violence (which he says is more traumatic in village and rural settings because unexpected), usually reserving Hell’s hottest places for the bystander who does nothing, and aiming to portray skinhead culture in its complexity rather than as a straw man plot device.
Shaun’s story is fairly straightforward. A loner who’s developing quite a temper, he’s taken in by some older, mildly skinhead kids, led by Woody (Joe Gilgun), whose second in command is an easy-going young Jamaican named Milky (Andrew Shim, a fine natural actor cast in most Meadows films but seemingly nowhere else). There’s an assortment of younger teens, and an auxiliary girl gang led by Woody’s girl Lol (Vicky McClure, another Meadows veteran), a hair stylist who keeps everyone shorn. Sometimes over the line of merely boisterous – one day they gleefully trash abandoned apartments with an energy and ferocity that gives you pause – this crew gets what many gangs provide: companionship, belonging, plenty of affirmation and rough physical affection, a curb on their more destructive impulses toward one another.
A film very much about young men, This is England nonetheless supplies three decisively strong and fully drawn female characters. Shaun’s mother Cynthia (Jo Hartley), though judging the haircut “not good,” okays her son’s bond with them after a confrontation in the village cafe. Members also get initiation into grown-up ways. Shaun has his first girlfriend, an older, quite a bit taller girl with huge hair and black lipstick. A bit outlandish if you met them on the street, Shaun and Smell (Rosamund Hanson) enjoy a surprisingly delicate, hesitant courtship. Even with her lipstick smeared garishly after their first kissing session, Smell maintains great dignity and sweetness. The hairdresser Lol, having survived what was clearly a brutal rape by Combo several years back, bluntly sets him straight when he attempts new advances. The strength and clarity of Lol’s experience – “the worst night of my life” – illuminates how deluded is Combo's hopeful recollection of the “best night” of his life.
Trouble comes in this person of Combo, one of the more riveting, complex portraits of a needy, manipulative sociopath found anywhere on screen, and one of the best explorations of precisely how such a figure works his will by dividing others according to their own fears and hopes. His first wedge when he returns from prison is his verbal attack on Milky, after which he effectively splits the group by sneering as Woody for "letting me abuse” the Jamaican. Similarly disorienting to Shaun is Combo’s praise of the boy for swinging at him when he disparages Falklands War veterans.
Intriguingly, Meadows has Combo rehearse his “troops.” He has the boys prepare for their invasion on a convenience store – the middle-aged Pakistani owner has banned Shaun – as if it were a stage performance. They get their lines, they work on their stances and delivery, they discover how having a role manages their anxiety. Meadows writes and directs very tight, pivotal scenes that advance his story. He also intersperses them with evocative musical montages that provide depth of field. Besides collaging images from the era – the opening of This is England is particularly brilliant – his musical montages often contain slow-motion images of the characters themselves, composed in ways that remarkably resemble album covers of bands – one imagines this is also how these characters would like to be seen – again underscoring of the importance of performance to adolescents. This and his use of contemporary music and montage have been among Meadows’ most consistent strengths, here blended in his choices of The Clash’s “This is England,” Jamaican classics from Toots and the Maytals and the Upsetters, pop from Percy Sledge, The Specials, Strawberry Switchblade, and Clayhill’s new cover of The Smith’s “Please, Please, Please.”
And the next diatribe you hear on the campaign trail about being soft on illegal immigrants? Remember, what goes around, comes around.
This review appeared in the 12/13/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth. Of Meadows’ previous feature films, Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) & Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002) are both available on DVD via Netflix. A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) is available on-line in non-US DVD format if you have a zone-free player. TwentyFourSeven (1997) can be found in VHS online. His next project, in which he again works with a frequent collaborator, the actor Paddy Considine, involves a Gypsy story set in Eastern Europe.