Gangs of the Midlands
One thing I have in common with writer and director Shane Meadows is that we are the same age, we were both born in 1972 but we definitely had different experiences of growing up. It's Meadows own experience of the 80s which provide part of the basis for "This Is England" a story of a lonely 12 year old boy and his experiences during the summer of 1983, a sort of coming of age story. But "This Is England" is more than just a coming of age story, it is also a look at the emotions of the 80s and how skinheads became synonymous with racism and the National Front.
It's the summer of 1983 and 12 year old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is having a difficult time, not only has he lost his father in the Falklands war but he is constantly being picked on and teased. But whilst walking home after a rough day he meets Woody (Joseph Gilgun - Harry Brown) and his small group of skinhead friends who take Shaun under their wing and make him feel one of their group. Everything is going well as not only does Shaun enjoy hanging out with his older friends but he also gets himself a girlfriend in Smell (Rosamund Hanson). But the harmony of the group is broken when Combo (Stephen Graham - Gangs of New York) returns from a stint inside and his racial spoutings divides everyone with half of them leaving and half of them staying including young Shaun who begins to idolise the aggressive Combo. But it is a summer which Shaun will never forget.
Shane Meadows certainly crafts a nostalgic movie filling the opening credits with archive footage of the Royal Wedding and the Falklands War along with other iconic 80s images. It's a clever blend because one moment you will have the humour of Roland Rat and the next the anger on the streets but it is very true to the era. And whilst Meadows experiences of the 80s differ to mine the bleakness he portrays is spot on as there are derelict houses, kids hanging on streets and so on and so fourth. Even the choice of music is spot on, refraining from going down the often used cheesy route to really show the music which was the driving force of the early 80s.
But "This Is England" is not just some piece of nostalgic film making it is the story of a young boy, Shaun, who is not only dealing with the loss of his father during the Falklands but also dealing with being a loner. As such this story has an element of coming of age as we watch Shaun find friendship in a bunch of disillusioned but fun loving skin heads through to his being influenced by the hateful Combo whose arrival splits the group as he spews and spits out racism inciting others to follow suit. And it is an interesting coming of age because we can understand how being taken in by Woody, Lol and their friends and becoming one of them allows Shaun to feel like he belongs. Yet we then see how impressionable he is by the way the powerful Combo manipulates him to become a little version of himself.
It is a powerful story as we watch Shaun learn some very hard facts about life as Combo's racial hatred boils over. And to be honest it is unsettling to watch all of this play out especially when it comes to the brutal beating we witness at the end. But it is also interesting because in many ways it reminds us that at one point skinheads weren't synonymous with racism, it was to be honest a fashion statement, a form of identification to what group you belong to but nothing to do with hatred. Yet we watch how skinheads became influenced by the National Front how they came to be seen as the ones attacking those from abroad who became residents in the UK. And as such we also understand a little as to why from the high unemployment to aid being perceived to be being given to those coming in from outside the UK.
At the centre of all of this are a collection of good performances from all the cast but it is a trio of performances which really stand out and that starts with Joseph Gilgun as Woody. It is because Gilgun plays Woody as such an honest young man that it is him who reminds us that once being a skinhead, wearing Ben Sherman and Doc Martins was nothing more than a fashion statement. And then at the other end you have Stephen Graham whose spite filled racist diatribe sends shudders down your spine, not only because he makes Combo a man filled with hatred but also a man who is manipulative.
But to be honest it is the third performance, that of young Thomas Turgoose as Shaun which really brings "This Is England" together. You have the fact that for a young child this is not child like acting, this is a young boy who comes across like he is living and breathing his character and as such everything he does and says feels right. But then we also watch how he goes from being lonely to a feeling of belonging and then being manipulated culminating in him learning a lot about life. To put it simply Turgoose delivers authenticity in everything, in the moments of fun, in the moments of reflection, when he sheds a tear or swears abuse and it is this which more than anything makes "This Is England" so right on so many levels.
What this all boils down to is that not only is "This Is England" an entertaining movie with its nostalgic looks but also a powerful one which combines a coming of age story with the emotion of the early 80s. It is at times hard hitting and uncomfortable but it is because Meadows paints a real picture of 80s bleakness that it works, well that and a stunning debut performance from Turgoose.