Movie Review: ‘This is England’
Shane Meadows is a film-maker that’s impressed me with everything I’ve seen of his. Granted I’ve only seen two of his films but both have been outstanding with powerful performances in both, with This Is England he not only makes his greatest film but one of the best British films of the best decade and one a lot more people need to see.
Set in the Summer holidays of 1983, a young lad named Shaun finds an escape from his lonely troubled life when he runs into a friendly group of skinheads in his area. They take him under their wing and show him a great time, away from the bullies at school and the troubles in the Falklands, all’s well and good until a former member of the gang comes home from prison and his racist views split the gang apart and despite their best intentions, they lose Shaun to the racism and hate that he feels against the world that’s pushed him around too much.
While the film does start off as a simple coming-of-age story the sudden change to the darker, more racist part is very welcome because that’s when the story begins, the film goes from good to great and it’s not afraid to go to dark places with this kid, nothing is held back and it becomes a brutal end to childhood.
The skinheads are all good, they’re a good group, not all of them are characterised – some of them don’t have any names – but as a group they were pretty good. Out of them all we got to know a few of them, Woody, the leader for lack of a better word and the first to befriend Shaun, Woody is a bit of a bully to other members of the group but he stick by Shaun through it all. Woody’s girlfriend Lol – her actual name – who is like a surrogate mother to Shaun before the group loses him, she’s loyal to Woody but there’s aspects of her past that he doesn’t know about. Milky, the lone black member of the group, friendly and cool usually, the racist remarks get to him, badly so in the end. And then there’s Gadget, the fat lackey, at first he’s hostile to Shaun for taking his place and the constant bullying by Woody means he’s one of the first to leave the group, it’s hard to tell if he really believes the racist words or if he’s just following someone.
There are two great performances in this film, first up, newcomer Thomas Turgoose – in his first ever role with no previous experience – as Shaun. At 11 years old, Shaun’s life is hell, he’s bullied constantly at school, he has no friends, his dad’s died while fighting a war he doesn’t understand, he already has a hatred for the world that is just waiting for the right trigger to set him off. Shaun is a great character because he’s on the cusp of adulthood, he ‘s just old enough to know what he’s doing but not yet old enough to understand the repercussions, he doesn’t have a maturity – he’s quite immature at times – but this violent and adult world surrounds him, forcing him to grow up a little too quickly.
The best role is no question, Stephen Graham as Combo, most of you may recognize Graham from other films like Snatch or Gangs Of New York, maybe even Boardwalk Empire as a little character called Al Capone. But trust me, you will not forget his name after this film, the guy owns every second he’s on screen, he’s got a captivating energy but for all the wrong reasons, he believes every word he’s saying, all the hate he’s spewing is something that he personally follows and yet you find yourself hanging onto every word he’s saying, he’s so convincing as the violent racist that it scares you. And Combo truly is terrifying, he’s so violent and unpredictable that at any moment he could just explode and when he does it’s a sight to behold.
Shane Meadows does a great job as director, he’s got a the realistic style that works wonders for this film, helping the 80s setting feel very natural, I wouldn’t go as far to say it’s a documentary but it does feel very much like we’re looking into the lives of this group of people. There’s a great mix of close-ups and general views, mixing the reactions of the characters, especially when something sudden and violent happens, with the country around them, after-all, this is England and it better show England in it.
Where the film really shines is the changeover, before Combo arrives it’s a very cheerful film, quite happy and upbeat, a fun time and the style and music represent that with some playful montages set to Toots & The Maytals, it’s basically Shaun having a great time with his new friends. That all changes once Combo comes in, you can literally feel the mood drop like a ton of bricks as soon as he opens his mouth and it’s all downhill from there, the violence, the insults, the abuse, it all becomes life for Shaun as he follows the misguided advice of a psychopath.
As bad as it gets, I do think the film gets a lot better once Combo is in it, because he’s just such a great character and you’ve no idea what he’s gonna do next, take the shop scene for example, out of nowhere he pulls a machete and while his friends are all laughing we’re sitting in fear, wondering what’s going to happen next.
One final point to make is the soundtrack, it’s very fitting for the 80s style, opening the film with Toots’ 54-46 to a montage of 80s footage was great and set the tone right away, Louie Louie, also by Toots’ made for a fun time wherever it could be found. The best song is actually Fuori Dal Mundo, a musical piece that is not only gorgeous to listen to but is used perfectly, making the slow descent of Shaun all the more sad to witness.
Overall, a bloody fantastic film that I really want more people to watch, the story of the vicious end of one boy’s childhood is great, the performances are brilliant with special mentions to Turgoose and Graham and Meadows knocks it out the park again. Highly, highly recommended.