This is England (2007) dir. Shane Meadows
Starring: Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Joseph Gilgun, Andrew Shim
By Alan Bacchus
British filmmaker Shane Meadows makes personal stories set in his hometown – the so-called Midlands of Northern England. “This is England” is appropriately titled because it’s a story how the depressed working class of England in the 80’s created racist xenophobic gang warfare in the name of English Nationalism. Meadows shows to us, with complete accuracy, what it was like to live in these depressed English towns. It was a scary place – a time of violent gangs and nihilistic hooliganism. Meadows turns this world into a scary, tough and tragic film.
Meadows sets the time and place perfectly in the opening sequence. It’s 1982 and the time of Margaret Thatcher and the Falkland Island War. A young 12 year old boy, Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), lives in a typical Northern English industrial town. With his father recently brought back deceased from the Falklands War, Shaun lives alone with his mother. He’s also a loner who’s picked on at school. At his lowest moment he is befriend by a local group of older kids – a skinhead gang led by the charismatic Woody (Joseph Gilgun). Shaun is ingratiated by the group, who take him in and give him an identity and a place where he belongs. He’s even given a skinhead uniform – Ben Sherman shirt, Doc Martin boots, and suspenders. They may be skinheads but they are far from malevolent racists that terrorized the new wave of Indian and Pakistani immigrants.
The good times come to a crashing halt when Woody’s old friend returns from prison to join the group. Combo (Stephen Graham) is a menace to society. Immediately he exerts his superiority to the group and institutes a mission of racial hatred. Combo splits the bunch, usurping Woody from leadership and ostracizing him from the group. Shaun fascinates Combo though. He’s small but passionate and feisty particularly when the Falkland War and his father are discussed. Combo takes Shaun under his wing and brings him into the violent world of Nationalist Skinhead politics. Though Shaun has found a kinship with his new friend his violent and irrational ways will soon rear its ugly head with drastic consequences.
The heart of the film is the relationship first between Shaun and Woody – which is like a big and little brother, and then Shaun’s friendship with Combo, who becomes his surrogate father. The lack of male guidance is important and even referenced in the film. Combo is a complex character. Though we don’t learn much about him we instantly recognize him as a once troubled kid, much like Shaun. Therefore the audience knows how influential and damaging Combo can be to the vulnerable youngster.
The subject of neo-Naziism has been filmed successfully three times in past 10 years – “Believer”, “Romper Stomper” and “American History X”. “This is England” is worthy of these great films because Meadows avoid all cliches of the genre. There are no lessons learned or comeuppance received from Combo. Everyone’s true colours are revealed but without the preachy sensationalism of “American History X”. The film also manages to identify the cultural differences of this particular brand of neo-Naziism to the early 1980’s area of Northern working class England. The xenophobia stems from the depressed nature of their once thriving community. With inflation and unemployment at all time highs frustration turns into hatred. This isn’t particular to England; France and the Netherlands are currently in the middle of similar racial divide. Meadows uses the distinct music of the period which influenced Skinheadism, as well as the fashion of the times. On the DVD there includes a fine essay dissecting the fashion, music and culture of this movement. The finest moment of the film is a conversation between Combo and his second generation Jamaican immigrant friend who form an unlikely bond over some good ganja. But as the conversation progresses Combo slowly turns into a vulnerable monster with psychotic tendencies.
“This is England” is a tough kitchen sink stuff, but wholly satisfying and engrossing. The lesson learned for today’s generation is not necessarily racial tolerance but a political lesson for Tony Blair. With many of the country’s soldiers in Iraq stubbornly fighting a similarly questionable war, the film warns the country of the dangers of a complacent government which, without proper social infrastructure, could turn these communities into an urban racial battlground again.