Thursday, 2 September 2010

THIS IS ENGLAND (2006) - 4 STARS

"Run with the crowd, stand alone, you decide"


The harsh reality of British socialism is displayed in raw terms by acclaimed director Shane Meadows whose BAFTA-winning triumph THIS IS ENGLAND (2006), set the tone for what was happening back in the 80s in terms of the culture and the events that were occurring during that period. The opening montage which uses a jazzy piece of music in the background uses real footage of the major situations going on in the year 1982 such as Margaret Thatcher's political campaign getting underway, Charles and Diana's wedding, the miner strikes and of course, the Falklands War. Some images in the montage come from pop culture that is remembered including the fashion and the songs that made it big but showing the Falklands War with shots of men lying dead shows what a flawed decade it was. These events played their part in setting up the society with which the film focuses on through Meadows' own personal experiences and takes us back to when Britain especially was struggling to cope with mass unemployment and immigration becoming a major topic.


Twelve-year old Shaun (a tremendous film debut from Thomas Turgoose) is part of the struggles of the 1980s, coming from a run down area in Barnsley, living with his widowed mother (Jo Hartley) whose husband (and Shaun's father) died in the Falklands War and wears shoddy clothes. After a run in with a Pakistani shopkeeper, Shaun is then bullied in school by a lad who makes taunts about his dad leading to a fierce fight. Whilst walking home from school he bumps into a group of skinheads led by friendly Woody (Joe Gilgun a.k.a Eli Dingle from Emmerdale) and is supported by other lads including charismatic Jamaican born Milky (Andrew Shim) and paranoiac, overweight groupie Gadget (Andrew Ellis) as well as a couple of others. The lads spend their time rebelling against the system incorporated by Thatcher which is proven by Woody allowing Shaun to join them in venting their anger out on an abandoned house in the countryside which initially causes jealousy from Gadget who believes Shaun is trying to take his place in the group but they eventually make up. Soon Shaun explores a different kind of feeling with being amongst these people and is later introduced to Woody's girlfriend Lol (Vicky McClure) and her band of friends including Gothic Smell (Rosamund Hanson) who takes a shine to Shaun. They give him a makeover which sees him wearing combat shoes, clothes that suit the group and of course, has his head shaved to look like a skinhead much to his mum's horror. She confronts the group but is instead thankful to them for helping Shaun through his rough period though things are soon about to change drastically for them. During a party which sees Shaun and Smell share a couple of passionate kisses, a pair of hard looking blokes burst into the party looking threatening but it turns out to be an old friend of Woody's named Combo (played with fiery bitterness by Stephen Graham) who has served time in prison and his henchman Banjo (George Newton).


 It is clear that Combo is a different kind of person to Woody particularly when he tells a story about a confrontation he had in prison with a black convict much to the group's awkwardness (Milky especially). After meeting Shaun as well, Combo arranges with the group to meet him at his flat to discuss the idea of driving the foreign citizens of England out the country in which it is obvious that he is a shocking idealist, a man reveling in frustration at the way England has been overrun by immigrants, the way Margaret Thatcher has capitalized on the citizens of England and how decent Englishmen are homeless and jobless. He also ridicules the reason why men have been forced into a pointless war which leads to Shaun reacting badly knowing that his dad probably died for nothing but is reassured by Combo that they can sort things out. However Woody and the group know that Combo is a pure racist despite his attempt to make them feel bad about not sticking up for Milky when he was telling the prison story. It sees Woody, Lol, Milky and Kes walk out but Shaun, Gadget, Pukey (Jack O'Connell) and Meggy (Perry Benson) remain with Combo with all of them having their reasons to rebel against the foreigners. This sees the newly formed group attend a meeting in the countryside involving other racist groups led by main official Lenny (Frank Harper) to try and show as much distant towards the foreigners as possible eventually driving them away. Pukey drops out of the group after insulting Combo's belief about driving them out, but they continue to march on with them practicing their confrontations by spraying abuse on walls and Shaun especially being taught to use racist language. He then gets his chance of revenge against the Pakistani shopkeeper from earlier in the film thanks to the groups' help while also earning their respect. However Combo's more personal side gets to him following a humane encounter with Lol and Shaun soon learns that everyone has their own hidden emotions as proven in the film's final twenty minutes where Combo's brutal side gets to him when Milky hangs round with the group during the evening. This moment of madness leads Shaun to realize that his future won't be prospective as displayed in the final scene where he gives up the dream of being like Combo for a more relaxed conclusion.


Typically for a British film, This Is England is exceptionally well written with some infectious dialogue and fully-fleshed characters, though one of the film's stand-out factors is that of Danny Cohen's cinematography. He shoots the film in such grim lighting which foreshadows the time and depression with which the characters find themselves in, further helped by the colorful but bizarre costumes that show the decade with such cultural tenacity. The characters and the actors who play them deserve a lot of credit with newcomer Thomas Turgoose, who himself came from a rough background, providing a stern and powerful debut as youngster Shaun, one of the best child performances in film. The trauma he goes through with being bullied in school as well as being from a poor home and a father who is dead attracts our sympathy and soon we see him develop over the course of the film by taking part in more extreme acts though it is impossible not to feel for his profound facial expression and sympathize with his early age portrayal of innocence. Of course the initiation of Shaun into the skinhead group is heart warming friendship and the character of Woody is a symbol of goodness. Gilgun's accent may be strong in the film but he gives Woody heart and treats Shaun like a younger brother and it is easy to see that their scenes together are very genuine. For me though, the stand out is Stephen Graham, who has developed as an actor over the years and gives his role as Combo a lot of bitterness but also a sense of complexity and something flawed about him. There are times when he goes too far with racial behaviour particularly the confrontation with the Pakistani shopkeeper but towards the film's shattering climax, we see just what drives him over the edge when it comes to personal values. The supporting cast do their job well with McClure, Shim and Ellis doing a considerable job with the roles. Hanson does a decent role as Smell but the relationship between her and Shaun is certainly a little sickening particularly when they share the snogging scene. It is hard to believe that she would've been attracted to a boy who was not only so much younger, but also looked so much younger. Hartley as Shaun's mum fails to add much to her role and not much is given to her to improve but obviously the ensemble cast is still wholesomely impressive. Another slight disappointment is how rushed the ending is which is also partly because the movie is too short and feels unfinished dealing with all its character's fates. But the upcoming spin-off series for this film THIS IS ENGLAND 86' at least will allow us to carry on enjoying these characters and seeing what has happened to them within the few years since this film's story ended. Shane Meadows certainly has been improving as a director with this film being a seemingly effortless achievement that matches a warm, humorous portrayal of a young lad growing up with his experience of the cold brutality that came with the 80s skinhead culture.

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