THIS IS ENGLANDNot Yet Rated
It might be safe to say that the Yorkshire district in England would be a difficult place for a working-class kid to have much hope at any point in recent history. But in 1983, the setting of Shane Meadows' This Is England, it would have been even harder than usual. As a brilliantly edited opening montage of news footage relates, the country was in crisis, with civil mayhem and general unrest everywhere, Margaret Thatcher bearing down with an iron hand, and the Falklands War sputtering on half a world away. Yorkshire itself is a fairly bleak landscape of council flats where London is treated as such a fantastic and faraway place that a shoe-store clerk tries to impress a pair on an unwilling child by repeating the mantra, "They're from London."
The child in question is Sean, played with pugnacious honesty by newcomer Thomas Turgoose. A 12-year-old boy with the pug nose and mournful expression of a beaten-down laborer four decades older, he lives alone with his mum (Vicky McClure), his father having died in the Falklands. He's sent to school on non-uniform day in a pair of flared trousers that make him the butt of everyone's derision, the rest of the school having come on that day tricked out in all their tribal finest, whether its New Romantic gaudery or rude-boy suits and ties. A put-upon Sean, walking home, then runs into a gaggle of skinheads who mock him further for his flares. Later, the skinheads' putative leader, Woody (the gangly and wildly likeable Joe Gilgun), feeling bad about the boys putting Sean down, invite him out. Decked out in clown wigs and a mish-mash of military gear, the gang rampages through the fields and abandoned buildings, playing war and generally goofing off. A giddy Sean tells them later that it was "the best day of me life."
Viewed as a sort of mascot, the seemingly friendless Sean eagerly adopts the skinhead look, getting his head shaved and donning the braces, Doc Marten boots and natty Ben Sherman shirt favored by the tribe. As has been shown in previous films like A Room for Romeo Brass, Meadows, whose humane and knowing script is apparently based at least in part on his childhood experiences, has an excellent eye for alienated youth, a talent evoked by the powerfully emotional scenes of Sean bonding with his much older friends, who treat him literally as family. The power of those scenes makes it that much more difficult when the film takes a darker turn on the arrival of Combo (Stephen Graham), an old friend of Woody's just out of jail and back to lead the pack again, only now full of National Front racism. Combo's return ignites a schism of sorts among the skinheads, most of whom don't buy the white-power ideology. But Sean's need for a father figure is so desperate that even the pathologically racist and violent Combo, who takes a shine to this brave little kid, seems an attractive choice.
Meadows doesn't spend much time explaining the minutiae of ideological differences between racist and non-racist skinheads (mainstream U.S. audiences will likely be surprised to find the latter category exist), but he clearly knows the subculture from the inside out, getting all the costume details just right and packing the tremendous soundtrack with the classic ska and soul tunes favored by skinheads of the period. The film is less a sociological exploration than a psychological portrait of Sean and Combo's relationship, the needs that each fulfills in the other. Although Meadows draws a firm line between explaining Combo's racism and excusing it, the film nevertheless presents in him an admirably conflicted character, especially in his relationship towards Milky, the Jamaican skinhead (played by Andrew Shim from Meadows' Romeo Brass) whom he alternately likes on a deeply personal level and despises on an ideological one. His monstrousness is no less despicable for the attempt made to understand it.
Filled with admirably naturalistic performances, This Is England presents an ugly picture of a disaffected corner of a disaffected country, whose residents cling to one another, their friendships and little subcultural knots, as a means of surviving amidst the gloomy, post-industrial landscape. Meadows has a fighters' way with his camera, but an increasingly mature way with story, especially in the haunting final shot, which deserves comparison to The 400 Blows.