Shane Meadows (part-autobiographical) film "This is England" is a moving, disturbing and deeply sad movie. It is in its own way quite brilliant, despite the fact the subject matter is so dark, and the violence, language and scenes of drug abuse so shocking.
The story concerns a bullied eleven year old boy called Shaun, from a Northern English council estate in 1983. Although he is vulnerable because of material poverty, his real vulnerability comes from the loss of his father in the Falklands War. He finds acceptance, affection, protection, enjoyment through membership of a skinhead gang; loyalty to which will also mediate his access to alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and girls.
In the early stages of his gang membership the boundary-pushing exploits of the group are as mindless as they are foolish. Under the leadership of Woody, the gang dress-up and vandalise empty buildings, but are racially integrated - a young Jamaican lad called 'Milky' being an essential member. This stage of the gang is meant to symbolise the early stages of skinhead culture in which they drew on Ska, Reggae and other forms of Caribbean culture. The happy stupidity of the group comes under pressure however when former leader 'Combo' is released from prison and begins to re-assert authority and lead the group into the National Front, and sickening outright racist violence. This stage of the gangs development represents the surge of the far -right in the 80s, which split the skinhead movement. Woody and Combo split - and the gang divides, but with Combo as the new father-figure, young Shaun is inextricably drawn into Combo's twisted world of paranoia, hatred, and insecurity. When Combo's personal weaknesses spill over into violence against their old friend Milky, the film plumbs depths of almost total despair - only to end with a note of hope as young Shaun hurls his National Front banner into the sea.
The film has four quite superb aspects that make it compelling.
The filming, and setting of the film is brilliant - just spot on. The look, background and feel of Thatcher's Britain is captured with both broad landscapes (as they were becoming post-industrial) which are wonderfully recreated - along with countless tiny details; carpets, TV sets, clothes, bikes, Rubic Cubes - all recreating the sights, and mood of the times. On top of this, many archive clips from TV news from the era, are woven throughout the story. We see riots, miners, soldiers, Argentinian POWs, Thatcher, Bob Holness' Blockbusters and much more. The backdrop is executed so well, that it acts as perfect canvas for Meadows on which to lay his story. The opening montage of 80s footage is a wonderful 3 or 4 minutes of retrospective in its own right, irrespective of the powerful overture that it is to the main performance.
The soundtrack is also a masterpiece. While it would be all to easy to have dumped a load of obvious 1980s hits behind the film, Meadows resists that particular temptation, and instead draws on a combination of the Ska and Black-roots music that defined the fissures and ironies of Skinhead culture, juxtaposed with heart-wrenching delicate musical passages which underlined the tragedy lurking behind the bravado.
As a piece of cultural commentary, Meadows film works very well. I have read that despite the extreme language and many disturbing scenes, (which gain the film an 18 cert) many councils wanted to use this film as part of their social education programmes. The brilliance of the film is that it shows both the joys and dangers of gang life. It speaks from the inside about the way that extreme communities do indeed generate all the benefits of genuine community, in an irreplaceable way for many of their members. Without a father, or friends, and in constant danger from violence, young Shaun is helped into adolescence and protected by the gang. However - it also demonstrates the way that community can work for great evil - when the basis of the loyalty that they exhibit becomes twisted. The inevitable and tragic decline of the basis of the group is told with gravity and looming menace.
Finally, the acting and directing is really very, very good. Thomas Turgoose as the 11/12 year-old central character is just absolutely convincing, as an innocent, as a thug, as a vulnerable boy, and a swaggering teen, when stoned and when sober. This is a remarkable performance. He's backed by many other good actors too, Joe Gilgun as Woody - plays the character-in-dilemma very well. Stephen Graham as Combo presents us with a character so damaged, flawed and weak - that to see him overtaken by his rage, inadequacies, and inability to secure the woman he wants, which spur the evil side of his character to triumph - is as absolutely tragic as it is completely terrifying.
Make no mistake, this is no easy film to watch. The way in which the tentacles of wickedness encircle a young boy, which he welcomes, and which lead him to rejoice in evil is disturbing stuff. Disturbing too are the scenes of violence, racist language, and juvenile drug abuse. These however were the realities of the author's life - and remain the reality of countless people's experience today. With minutes to go - the film leaves the viewer almost gasping for a glimmer of redemption, for even a breath of clean air amongst the stifling fumes of despair. And even for that - Meadows keeps us waiting until the film's very final seconds.