Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 26 October 2006
Source Warp Films 35mm print
Features: The Times BFI 50th London Film Festival
Shane Meadows has been quietly developing his own precise, fearless, uniquely British filmmaking style for over a decade now, starting with the bright but unambitious ensemble comedy 24/7, he shifted into strange territory with A Room For Romeo Brass, a disturbing study in suburban claustrophobia and pre-teen angst. Once Upon A Time In The Midlands was an understandable glitch, as Meadows gave in to populist temptation and compromised, with sweet but undemanding results. Dead Man’s Shoes seemed to come out of nowhere—unrelentingly bleak, starkly intelligent and emotionally overpowering, Paddy Considine stalking the land like a dark avenger, a neo-realist angel of hallucinogenic death. Now This Is England marks some sort of culmination, drawing together disparate threads from throughout Meadows’ filmography and weaving them into something brave, distinctive and powerfully personal.
The scene is established with a lurid, kaleidoscopic (if overlong) credits montage: England in the early ’80s, all Rubik’s cubes and big hair, Thatcher and the Falklands, Roland Rat and race riots. The incessant grind of Toots And The Maytals’ ‘54-48 Was My Number’ lends the images an urgent intensity. Heavy ska and urban desolation: we’re already deep in Meadows territory. The story follows chubby, browbeaten 12-year-old Shaun Fields (subtle!), picked on for his flares and Keith Chegwin haircut, as he falls in with a gang of older kids, old-style skinheads in to smoking pot and listening to roots. The script draws the distinction between the original Modernist skinhead movement, into black music and jazz culture, and the more recent, violent neo-fascist element. The gang, led by jovial trickster Woody, take Shaun under their wing: he gets a shaved head, a pair of bovver boots, even a snog in the coal shed with nervous new romantic Smell (it rhymes with Michelle, apparently).
But then a new figure appears on the scene, Woody’s old gang brother Combo, freshly released from a three year stretch and eager to impart the knowledge he’s gained about England’s true strength and heritage. The gang splits—Woody, his girlfriend Lol and their black counterpart Milky opt to leave, but Shaun stays, swayed by Combo’s inflammatory rhetoric. Soon they’re attending National Front meetings, threatening local Asians, flying the George Cross for all to see. But Combo has started to become unstuck, tortured by thoughts of a hateful past and an empty, loveless future.
This Is England works like a compilation in film, it could have been titled The Best of Shane Meadows. There’s the slapstick macho humour and easy camaraderie of 24/7, the adolescent paranoia and self doubt of Romeo Brass, the wide-ranging ensemble feel of Once Upon A Time… and most of all the steadily mounting threat and claustrophobic terror of Dead Man’s Shoes, personified in the awesomely unhinged figure of Combo, a man just smart enough to know he’s dangerous, and revel in it. He’s a familiar figure in Meadows’ work now—the charismatic psychopath, the warped father figure who also brings death. Nobody writes tortured maniacs with this much skill and sympathy, and Stephen Graham’s explosive performance captures the character perfectly.
As Shaun, first-timer Thomas Turgoose feels completely natural, his put-upon desperation turning to elation and finally fear. The scenes between Shaun and the spectacularly coiffed Smell feel like unvarnished reality, tender and awkward and deeply uncertain. Among the Meadows regulars in the cast, Andrew Shim makes an impact as Milky, very much his title character from Romeo Brass grown up, but still not sure of his place in this white world. Likewise Vicky McClure as Lol, still the self-assured working class girl, now more mature and confident, able to stand up to Combo in one of the film’s strongest scenes, as he reveals his love for her. Soap veteran Joseph Gilgun makes Woody (a reference to Joe Strummer’s old nickname) a warm, hugely likeable authority figure whose presence grounds the film: one of the few disappointments here is his absence in the second half.
Indeed, Woody’s disappearance serves to highlight the film’s biggest flaw. We’re used to downbeat, small scale endings in Meadows’ films, but the widespread character tensions in This Is England are so expertly woven that we can’t help expecting some sort of showdown between Combo and Woody, with the other characters caught in the middle. It never comes—Combo’s breakdown is sudden and shocking, but somehow pathetic, ineffectually railing against all those whose lives are better than his, whatever their ethnicity. It’s an honest, achingly real conclusion, but one can’t help wanting more. The impact on Shaun is not really explored; how does a child come back from this sort of extreme experience, this level of ingrained hate? The film wraps up too easily, with too many such questions left unanswered.
But for the majority of its running time, This Is England is close to perfect. Meadows’ ability, as both writer and director, to create and prolong tension through simple character conflicts and the threat of violence is undiminished: from the moment of Combo’s first machete-wielding appearance the audience is on the hook. The soundtrack is consistently effective at setting and sustaining mood, from the juddering stomp of the Maytals to the plaintive acoustic sadness of Gravenhurst. The sense of time and place is immediate and flawless, a jarring, vaguely queasy nostalgia is inevitable for those of us who lived through it. And while this may not be Meadows’ finest work to date (that honour stays with Dead Man’s Shoes), it is his most focussed and most personal, and very likely his most popular.