Monday, April 23, 2007

Review - This is England

As soon as This is England begins you just know it's going to be something special. The first figure who appears on screen is Roland Rat, and as the credits roll we see everything and everyone who made Britain what it was in the 1980's. There's Thatcher, Space Invaders, Charles and Diana, the Falklands war, Rubik's Cubes, aerobics videos, Yuppies and race riots - and these images are brilliantly edited to the sound of Toots and the Maytals' 54-46 Was My Number. It's an arresting, wonderfully energising opening, and from this point onwards This is England doesn't put a foot wrong.

This is England is the latest film from Shane Meadows, a filmmaker who made his debut just ten years ago with Twenty Four Seven, and with this picture he has fulfilled all of the promise shown in his work to date. Thematically and stylistically This is England can't be seen as a great forward leap for Meadows, but while he may be exploring similar territory to his previous work, his new film achieves a different level of complexity and maturity. With a typically witty and insightful screenplay, deft direction and devastatingly powerful performances, this picture firmly establishes Shane Meadows as the best British filmmaker of his generation.

Not only is
This is England Shane Meadows' best film, it's also his most personal, with the semi-autobiographical nature of the plot emphasised by naming the central character Shaun Fields. It's 1983 and Shaun (played by first-time actor Thomas Turgoose) is an 12 year-old with a lot on his mind. His father has been killed in the Falklands and he can't seem to stay out of strife, getting in a fight at school when another boy makes a callous joke about his dead dad. When he encounters a group of skinheads on the way home there appears to be more trouble on the horizon, but this group, led by Woody (Joe Gilgun), are sympathetic to Shaun's tales of bullying. They take him under their wing, giving him the requisite haircut and Ben Sherman shirt, and Shaun's delight at finally finding some acceptance is palpable. "Thanks for today" he tells Woody after spending an afternoon destroying derelict houses with them, "it's been the best day of my life".

Shaun's mother (Jo Hartley) is initially concerned by her son's new friends, but after meeting with them her fears are allayed, perhaps swayed by her son's newfound happiness. The fun doesn't last though, and a dangerous new element is introduced with the unexpected arrival of Woody's old friend Combo (Stephen Graham), who has just been released from jail. Combo has changed since Woody last saw him, and his stream of racist stories from the inside unsettles the group, particularly their black friend Milky (Andrew Shim). The next day Combo calls them all together and makes an impassioned speech about what it means to be English, demanding that they join him and all "true Englishmen" in taking the country back from the outsiders who have made it their home. Most of gang follow Woody in rejecting this racist rhetoric, but Combo's talk about Englishmen being killed in a needless war strikes a chord with Shaun.

From this point the film could have played out as a battle between Woody and Combo for young Shaun's soul, but
This is England doesn't go there. Instead Woody is barely seen in the film's second half and the film focuses on Shaun's unsettling relationship with Combo, and his inducement into the world of National Front politics. Meadows uses this relationship as a microcosm to depict what was happening in Britain at the time. Most skinhead groups were heavily influenced by ska, reggae and other forms of West Indian culture, but their look gradually came to personify the kind fascism and violence which reared its head during this decade. Combo's rightwing ideology gradually begins to seep into the film and makes its mark on young Shaun; but Meadows is careful not to paint Combo as a mindless thug, instead allowing him flashes of intelligence and articulacy, which in many ways makes him even worse. Like Edward Norton's character from American History X and Russell Crowe's role in Romper Stomper, Combo has a certain kind of charisma and a way of speaking which can win impressionable hearts and minds. He shares with Shaun the pain of an absent father, and he tells his awestruck young friend that looking at him is like looking in a mirror. Shaun hangs a St. George's Cross out of his window, gets a cross tattoo inked onto his fist, and takes part in their raids on local Pakistani-run shops. Combo watches his young friend's antics with an almost paternal sense of pride.

This is a truly extraordinary performance from Stephen Graham, an actor who has done decent work in various films and TV shows over the past few years but has never shown the kind of intensity and depth on display here. His character is a volatile ball of rage with a short fuse, displaying this dark side of his personality when he's driving home from a National Front rally, and one of his young passengers dares to question the validity of the speeches they've just heard - Combo's response is terrifying. But Graham gives his character depth and shade, and Meadows gives him one wonderful scene when he confesses his feelings for Woody's girlfriend (Vicky McClure) with whom he had a one-night stand some years previously. "It was the worst night of my life" she tells him, and Combo's heartbroken response might elicit unexpected feelings of sympathy from the audience. This is a compelling psychological portrait of a man filled with hate, and when Combo launches into the horrific act of violence with which the film climaxes, we see that he is motivated as much by confused feelings of loneliness, jealousy and emasculation as much as anything else.

Graham is a professional actor doing the best work of his career here, but one of the hallmarks of Shane Meadows' films to date has been his peerless ability to coax great performances from non-actors, and he has struck gold with Thomas Turgoose. Young Turgoose had no acting experience whatsoever before embarking on this project, but his performance is utterly remarkable. Cheeky and vulnerable by turn, he brings genuine emotion to the central role, and his character's development over the course of the picture is depicted with stunning subtlety, climaxing with the desperately moving final image: Shaun alone on the beach, the Flag of St George in his hand, the cold sea stretching out in front of him, his childhood far behind.

This is England is instantly recognisable as a Shane Meadows film, in fact it could almost be read as a summation of the director's career to date, but it also marks a clear step up from the his earlier works. There's the same narrative arc which defined A Room for Romeo Brass, with early scenes of easygoing camaraderie gradually turning into something darker; and it has the same everyday, naturalistic depiction of violence which Meadows utilised in Dead Man's Shoes. The cast is filled with actors who have worked with the director in the past, many of whom were given their debut by Meadows, and his use of music to evoke the atmosphere of a particular time and place is as powerful as ever. Again, Meadows uses a straightforward story in his native midlands milieu to explore universal truths; but here there's a sense of real weight and resonance which is something new for the director.

The only unfortunate note struck by
This is England is something for which nobody involved in the film's making can be blamed. The BBFC's decision to award the film an 18 certificate is a hugely disappointing one which excludes an audience who could possibly benefit most from seeing this picture. This is a film which confronts the issues of racism, bullying and adolescent confusion head-on, and yet it is deemed more offensive than such empty, sadistic 15-rated films as 300 and Snakes on a Plane. Such is the absurdity of the ratings system; but one hopes this stunningly fresh and honest film will find as wide an audience as possible, because it's as much a film about how we live now as how we lived then. With a story which touches on an unnecessary war, racial unrest and disillusioned teenagers looking for an outlet for their frustrations, it's little wonder that Meadows has called his film This is England.