Sunday 9 March 2008

This Is England (2006)

Sunday 9 March 2008
Writer & Director: Shane Meadows

Cast: Thomas Turgoose (Shaun), Stephen Graham (Combo), Jo Hartley (Cynth), Andrew Shim (Milky), Vicky McClure (Lol), Joe Gilgun (Woody), Rosamund Hanson (Smell), Perry Benson (Meggy), Andrew Ellis (Gadget), George Newton (Banjo), Frank Harper (Lenny), Jack O'Connell (Pukey Nicholls), Kriss Dosanjh (Mr Sandhu), Kieran Hardcastle (Kes), Chanel Cresswell (Kelly), Sophie Ellerby (Pob), Hannah Walters (Shoe Shop Assistant), Dave Laws (Mr Dudley), Michael Socha (Bully), Ian Smith (Teacher #1) & Dave Blant (Teacher #2)

A boy grieving the loss of his father in the Falklands conflict finds solace with a gang of teenage skinheads...

After years building a reputation that attracted big-name talent (Bob Hoskins in Twenty Four Seven, Robert Carlyle in Once Upon A Time In The Midlands, Clive Owen in Dead Man's Shoes), how ironic that writer-director Shane Meadows' best film is without any famous faces whatsoever...

Newcomer Thomas Turgoose plays Shaun, an atypical kid living in 1983 with his recently-widowed mother, after his father was killed in the Falklands. Alienated and bullied at school, he's befriended by amiable Woody (Joe Gilgun) and a small gang of skinheads, who take Shaun to their hearts and restyle him in their own image (shaved head, Doc Marten boots, Ben Sherman shirt, Levi jeans, braces, etc.)

Interestingly, preconceptions of Shaun's inevitable slide into racism and violence (because of the continuing stigma of the word "skinhead") don't come to pass. Well, not quite as you expect. Instead, Woody and his friends offer genuine companionship and brotherhood to Shaun, as they only really use skinhead culture as a means to connect and identify with each other...

Events only turn disquieting when Woody's older friend Combo (Stephen Graham) gets out of prison and creates a split in Woody's gang – taking his half, including Shaun, back to the perceived core values of a true skinhead: prejudice, racism, nationalism, political activism and violence. Shaun is sucked into hardliner Combo's skewed outlook on life, losing sight of the innocent fun and companionship he'd shared with Woody's mob...

The film is essentially about a boy losing his father and trying to fill that gap in his life, and Meadows is incredibly skilled at balancing then-topical issues that resonate today, with human drama that never ages. The cast are all very impressive, particularly Turgoose (his first screen role, amazingly) and the stunning Graham (a British actor who's underappreciated and deserves more recognition after this).

This Is England also does a superb job of evoking the 80s without simply filling the screen with paraphernalia from the times (pay attention Ashes To Ashes). It just feels utterly authentic; so much so that you could probably fool people into thinking this is a product of early-80s filmmaking discovered in an archive and re-mastered 2 decades later. There's a superlative opening sequence that mixes pop-culture of the 80s (Knight Rider, Roland Rat, the Royal Wedding) with news reel footage from the Falklands War that, just on its own, is worthy of some acclaim.

There are a few storytelling decisions that didn't click for me – such as the very unlikely romance between Shaun and an older girl that's uncomfortable and slightly implausible, the strange way Shaun's mother vanishes from the picture when her son most needs her guidance (missing opportunities for added drama at home), and an ending that you can see coming a mile away – and, when it does arrive, fails to have the numbing impact you'd hoped for.

But for the most part, This Is England is a compelling story, beautifully acted, that accurately portrays its time-period and touches on issues that are interesting in hindsight, and also act as a cautionary tale for modern society – as we face similar racial tensions with Muslims, post-9/11. It's a gritty, honest, plain-speaking, mature slice of British cinema that's fully deserving of your attention.

Budget: £1.5 million
101 minutes

PICTURE: 1.85:1 | SOUND: Dolby Digital 5.1