Portrait of a man as a young skinhead
By Leonard Quart
Shane Meadows films usually deal with the machismo and violence of young, British, working class, disaffected males, who exist on the dole outside the new service-oriented economy. In this semi-autobiographical film, set in 1983 in a bleak coastal town, Grimsby, the small, solitary, fatherless, 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), finds understanding and community for a while with a group of older skinheads
Meadows portrait of the skinheads derives heavily from his own personal experience as a school dropout and young skinhead. So hes the perfect director to avoid turning these angry, powerless young men into cartoons and empathizing with their need to vandalize, drink, and cause minor mayhem. In fact, his depiction of the group is so nuanced, that we view them as alienated and lost, but also playful, witty, and caring. The group initiates a solemn, frustrated, angry Shaun (who is constantly victimized in school) by cutting his hair and dressing him in skinhead style Doc Martens boots, and Ben Sherman shirts. Shaun fashions a new, much happier identity by partying, smoking and drinking with them, and even being introduced to sex by the punk and weird looking, kindly and comic Smell (Rosamund Hanson) one of the groups auxiliary girls. The scenes between Shaun and Smell are touched with genuine tenderness. This is England shifts its tone when an over-30, ex-con skinhead, Combo (Stephen Graham), returns to form a National Front cell. Combo is volatile, jingoist and virulently racist, and turns off most of the group who leave, including the one Afro-Caribbean, a sweet natured, intelligent skinhead, nicknamed Milky (played by Meadows regular Andrew Shim).Combo adopts Shaun as a protégé he likes his feistiness. So Shaun who acutely misses his father (he died in the Falklands), and needs a surrogate, sticks with Combo, who represents a more political, ominous version of the skinhead movement. He stands in vivid contrast to the original group that is relatively innocent, mildly anarchic, and listens to black music.
Combo leads his followers to write racist graffiti, bully Muslim adolescents, and intimidate and rob a Pakistani grocer. Shaun joins in without any qualms, and does not need Combos presence to behave contemptuously towards the Pakistanis the Pakis being the scapegoats for members of the alienated white and even, at times, the black working class.
But Meadows even has some sympathy for Combo, who, though his rage is uncontrolled, and he commits the one truly violent action in the film, can break down and feel guilt. The inevitable destructive act by Combo moves a hysterical, repelled Shaun to drop out of the whole skinhead scene, and take refuge in his mothers love and his fathers photo. The last scene, reminiscent of Truffauts 400 Blows, captures Shaun in close up on a desolate beach, staring into the camera, looking like a boy who has lost all hope.
Meadows gets very strong performances from his two lead actors. Turgoose is a nonprofessional who is a natural actor he is charming and quick-witted, but can turn hard and even demonic, and Graham can alternate between being both frightening and pathetic.
Meadows also fluidly uses montage over the films opening credits to establish the films social context. We see images of the meaningless Falklands war that cost lives that should never have been lost; its victorious architect, Margaret Thatcher, in power with more than three million unemployed; the marriage of Diana and Charles; and the racist National Front on the rise, all accompanied by a pounding rock soundtrack.
Meadows has made an evenhanded, compassionate film about a group that can be easily stereotyped and dismissed as a group of barbaric neo-Nazis. Though there are moments in the film when I would have liked him to do more with his characters, and probe more deeply into their motivations and inner lives. This is England is a strong, true, and incisive work.