The Reeler


July 26, 2007

This is England

A glorious collage of youth, hate and ideology in Thatcher's England

When it comes to dramatized recollections of conflicted youth, This is England, Shane Meadows’ semi-autobiographical portrait of a British child ideologically misled by skinheads, provides an exemplary model. It’s a glorious collage of young person moods: loneliness, confusion, revolt and languor. Meadows builds on this endearing formula with an involving interrogation of hate, and a bold willingness to show how a racist mentality can offer outsiders the dangerous illusion of salvation. The spot-on juvenilia alternates between modes of cuteness and terror.

It’s also a detailed period piece: England takes place in 1983, following Margaret Thatcher’s successful reelection as Prime Minister, bolstered by the country’s victory against Argentina in the Falklands War. Somewhere between the ferocious partisanship that emboldened Thatcher’s return to office and the low-culture amusement of British programming like Roland Rat lies the awareness of 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), an angry little outsider whose soldier father died in battle.

Struggling with inner grief and schoolyard bullies, Shawn spends his summer drifting into an older crowd. It’s a far more radical move than he could possibly comprehend: The amicable team leader of his newfound clique, a strapping, partying dropout named Woody (Joe Gilgun), leads the skinhead gang with casual indifference about the world around him. Things change when his belligerent former pal Combo (Stephen Graham), a vessel for corrupt white-power conceits, gets out of jail and rejoins the gang. Enforcing a strict allegiance to the British National Front, Combo breaks up the previously tight-knit group with his mangled “with-us-or-against-us” rationale. England takes a mighty dark turn as Shawn chooses to accept Combo as a role model, viewing the National Front’s neo-Nazi patriotism as a means of honoring his late dad.

Shaun’s evolving understanding of his place in British society follows a loopy arc that applies a fantastic soundtrack as its primary crutch. Classic hits of the era like “Come on Eileen,” one of the country’s biggest singles at the time, underscore the character’s transition into an active youth culture. Music operates in ways beyond Shaun’s subjectivity, too; Toots & the Maytals’ ska standard “54-46 Was My Number,” a pioneer in introducing such rhythms outside of Jamaica, opens the movie and sets up the conflict between longstanding Jamaican gang member Milky (Andrew Shim) and Combo’s notions of ethnic purity.

Turgoose, a promising actor at this early stage of his career, plays Shaun as a kid with a lot on his mind. More than that, however, he gives the likable protagonist an adorable-yet-tough aura that keeps his plight in focus; he keeps you rooting for Shaun’s simplistic social goals -- having friends, looking cool -- even as the larger necessity that he choose the right path to adulthood hangs over every scene. It’s enough to distract from some of the pointless subplots, including Combo’s vain pursuit of a former flame and Shaun’s unconvincing relationship with a teenager.

The primary charm and wonder of England is its off-the-cuff dialogue (a Meadows trademark), which includes political ruminations and party chatter, treating both types of exchanges as relevant in exploring the inquisitiveness of a young person’s thought process. Meadows’ previous films, including the incendiary thriller Dead Man’s Shoes, have been compared to the kitchen-sink realism popularized in England during the '50s and '60s. England feels more like a classic work of neorealism, using the universal poignancy of a child’s insight into a brutal world in a manner akin to Roberto Rossellini’s decision to survey post-World War II chaos in Germany Year Zero through the experiences of a young boy. Meadows claims that the story takes cues from his own life, suggesting the value of nostalgia: Finding truth in mistakes, and moving on.

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