Film Reviews

This Is England Shane Meadows

Rating - 9/10

If Dead Man's Shoes forced critics of Shane Meadows to think again, then This Is England will make them wonder why they ever questioned his abilities in the first place. (I'll give you a clue: Once Upon a Time in the Midlands). This semi-autobiographical piece about growing up in Thatcher's Britain against the gloomy backdrop of the Falklands War is not only one of the year's most entertaining works; much more importantly than that, it's also one of the most relevant.

The action centres around 12 year old Shaun, a prickly little outsider wonderfully brought to life by newcomer Thomas Turgoose. After a particularly eventful day at school which culminates in a visit to the headmaster's office, Shaun meets a group of amiable skinheads, led by the charismatic Woody, who gradually welcome him into their gang. In a heart-warming first third, we follow Shaun's transformation from a chubby Keith Chegwin look-alike to bona fide skin with his very own Ben Sherman shirt and grade one all over to match. There's even room for a little coming of age action, too, as Shaun finds time to fumble around in the garden with a New Romantic called Smell (because it rhymes with Michelle, apparently).

Just as This Is England is starting to become comfortable, however, the film takes a decidedly dark turn as the sinister Combo (a chilling Stephen Graham) usurps the likeable Woody and splits the gang with his far-right politics, thinly veiled racism and manipulative rants. Combo preys on the fact that Shaun's dad was killed in the Falklands War and uses this to lure him away from the safety of Woody. With the chaotic, unhinged Combo in charge, events begin to spiral out of control and while Shaun initially finds the action enthralling he will soon learn a difficult lesson or two as things turn really nasty.

As well as providing a snapshot into 80's Britain and right-wing politics, This Is England is an intensely personal film about the role of the family and in particular the father. In Shaun's case it is about bereavement and the paths that a boy follows after his father's untimely death. Increasingly withdrawn from his home life and particularly his mother, he finds comfort in the almost familial atmosphere of the gang, and both Woody and later Combo temporarily occupy at least a part of the void left by his father's death. But, intriguingly, the relationship between Combo and Shaun also tells us a great deal about Combo's own childhood, and without really fleshing out the details, Meadows provides a few clues as to how he has ended up an intensely bitter and remorseless adult. Indeed, much of the latter part of the film sees Combo clumsily attempting to deal with his own father's shortcomings and his inability to do so ultimately fuels his downfall.

If you look beyond the dubious trends of the decade and the laughably dated uniforms of the opposing tribes in 80's teenage society, This Is England provides a chilling reminder that very little has actually changed. Nearly twenty-five years on the same racial tensions exist on British streets. The country is involved in another controversial war overseas and at home the British National Party is far more successful than the National Front could ever have dreamed of being. And just because the far-right politicians wear suits and sport respectable haircuts nowadays it doesn't mean they've tempered their manifesto. The skinheads may have all but disappeared from England's streets but the streets themselves aren't quite as different as we'd like to think.