Saturday, 15 September 2007

This Is England (UK, 2006)




Director: Shane Meadows.

Principal cast: Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham.


There are films which deal with reality through fiction in its many forms and there are films which try to portray reality as accurately as a human mind can remember it adding an almost documentary feel to them. "This Is England" certainly belongs to the latter category since the skinhead environment which is the main framework of the film’s plot is recreated by and large from the memories of Shane Meadows, its director. But it also recreates so much more – the 80s, the North of England in the 80s, growing up as a working class lad in the North of England in the 80s. A lot of effort went into recreating authentic hairdos, styles, interior and such. If there has ever been a period piece about the 80s, this is definitely the one.

The film follows the life of a 12 year old boy Shaun (although I must admit that he physically appears to be somewhat younger), a lonesome and rather awkward lad who lives alone with his mother since his dad died in the war over the Falklands. On his way home back from his last day at school before holidays he meets a gang of skinheads with whom he soon forges bonds of friendship. At first glance, this is a motley crew of bored teenagers of both sexes who should have been too cool to other than snigger at the little Shaun. Still, they take him in, if only because they are craving for a new face. To be part of the gang he also needs to look the part, so soon enough his head is bald, he wears a Ben Sherman shirt with suspenders and accompanying boots. But the change isn’t only in his appearance (funny enough, his mother only objected to his shaved head, but didn’t say a word about his overall skinhead look), he seems to have got a sense of belonging and cameraderie which seems to make his life more meaningful and simply more fun. As for this bunch of self-proclaimed skinheads, their „misbehaviour” is relatively innocent – the worst thing they do is go berserk in an abandoned house. Their gang even includes a Jamaican – a far cry from the white supremacy direction that the skinhead movement is about to take. And presumably, it would have stayed that way, at least, in their case, had it not been for the return of Combo, an older skinhead who had just been released from prison. Disenchanted with the world and bitter about his own misfortunes he soon tries to lead the group onto a much bumpier road – a fight for England with „no niggers and other scum” who take the jobs and housing away from the English. The group splits in the middle and Shaun is carried away by Combo’s rhetoric whom he now sees as something of a father figure. Combo, in his turn, sees Shaun as the young apprentice and soulmate he needs in order to feel better about himself. But when the going gets tough, young Shaun is forced to question Combo’s moral authority and racist views.

What is remarkable about this film is not so much the plot itself, but the mental dissection of the two main characters – Shaun and Combo. Much has been said about Thomas Turgoose, the newly found talent who plays Shaun. He has even received The Most Promising Newcomer Award for his part in the film. And his acting is indeed very convincing, maybe because he didn’t really have to act in the true meaning of the word. I found that the most amazing performance in the film came from Stephen Graham who played Combo and whom many remember as the dim-witted Tommy in Guy Ritchie’s "Snatch". In this role he shows the full amplitude of Combo’s emotions and especially the unpredictability of his character. Combo is a social outcast, a loser in all respects, somebody who has never had many happy memories about anything. When he tells Lol, a girl he once spent a night with before going to jail, that that night is the happiest memory he has, she smashes the last illusion of a happy memory in him by saying that for her it was the most disgusting memory. He is bitter at the world, he is full of hatred toward all these people who have it better off than him, especially if they aren’t white. So the choice of a scapegoat is obvious which has also made it so much easier for the National Front and the likes of them to recruit Combo and other bitter and disenchanted „Thatcher’s children” to their cause and political ideas. Suddenly, one’s life gets a meaning and a way of channelling out the dark emotions in oneself, if only in the wrong direction. But that is still on a higher and more general level. When Combo is directly confronted with the happy memories of Milk, the Jamaican member of the original pre-Combo gang, the hatred becomes personal and inevitably culminates in an explosion of uncontrollable violence. The world is never as black and white as presented by the extremist ideologists and this certainly also applies to Combo. For all it’s worth, he actually liked the guy and having made sure that he actually considers himself English even wanted him to join his gang. The fact that Stephen Graham is himself of a mixed racial background (his grandfather was a black Jamaican) only adds to the depth of his portrayal of the demons Combo fights with in himself.

The Falklands war which takes place in the background is a parallell to the world of the bullying skinheads, only the war takes it onto the national level. Combo and his friends bully the "niggers" because it makes them feel better about themselves. One can argue that the Falklands war took place because it made the British nation feel better about themselves. This makes it all the more ironic that Combo is the one who fiercely opposes this war.

All in all, a superb English film with excellent actors and a genuine depth to it without relying on your recognition of symbols and coded messages. It’s as straightforward as it can be – what you see is what you get and you get it galore.

15 comments:

Russell said...

I agree! This was a wonderful film and I was equally struck by the great attention to detail in the film, which made Northern England in the 80s once again come alive before my eyes.
The ony thing that I found a little hard to believe in the film was the relationship between the 18 year old Smell and 12 year old Shaun.....I felt that the likelihood of this happening in real life was rather small. It didn't spoil the quality of the film at all, it just wasn't so easily identifiable to be as many other aspects of the film.

Andrejs Visockis said...

I must admit I found that rather comical, but then again, she seemed a little retarded, so she just probably found somebody her own mental age :)

Amy said...

A nice and thorough review that quite thoroughly sums up many of the themes and emotions tied up in the film!

What I also liked about the film also echoes what you said about things never being black and white. For the first half of the film I was wondering why we (the audience) were being expected to sympathise with a group of skinheads. In Shaun's case, they were the nice guys, compared with the bullies at school. But just as the audience could sympathise even with the likes of Combo, and at the same time condemn him for his actions, he too was a rather conflicted soul. His conflicting emotions echoed ours, as well as Shaun's, as we all attempted to come to terms with what he had ultimately done.

And a specific comment for you two boys: I would expect a more liberal and tolerant attitude toward 'alternative' relationships! Andrejs, why does an older girl who falls for a younger guy automatically have to be retarded in order for her feelings to seem justifiable to you? And Russell, why is it so hard to believe a relationship among youngsters of this age difference? Would you really have made the same comments if the guy had been 18 and the girl 12? Things like that happen all the time and our society accepts the latter type of relationship, yet scorns the former, finding it unacceptable and unbelievable. I would have thought that you guys, of all people, would have a more open understanding and liberal definition of relationships, and not succumb to society's idea of them! I don't mean to offend, but just offer this as a comment as I am truly surprised! :)

Andrejs Visockis said...

It's not a question of condemning a particular type of relationship, but rather the likelihood of such turn of events. As I've never come across such a couple in real life, I just find it a bit funny. That is not to say it wouldn't exist in real life, just that I don't think it's that likely that a fully-developed 18 year old girl would want a serious relationship with an (at least physically) underdeveloped 12 year old boy.

Amy said...

Different strokes for different folks! After all, wasn't our motto: cilveki ir dazadi, milestiba ir vienadi???...the only reason it seems unlikely is because of the societal rubric that defines relationships as commonly between this type of person and that type of person (male and female, older and younger, etc.). I, for one, didn't really find their relationship all that unusual or unlikely. Maybe it wasn't that she was retarded, but rather enlightened, and not one conforming to society's idea of a relationship. She was, after all, a bohemian, already on the fringes of that society. In fact her rejection of the acceptable standard of relationships goes hand in hand with her rejection of that society in general.

Andrejs Visockis said...

I suppose my point of view derives from me being a man, but isn't an 18 year old girl (and not the most inncent one by the look of her) supposed to be interested in more than just kissing or having her tits sucked? There is usually a corelation between somebody's physical development and his/her mental age (admittedly, not always). But if her physical development and mental age corelate, I'm not sure Shaun would be enough for her.

Amy said...

Well it's interesting that you say "because you're a man," you see things this way, yet in both the gay and straight world there is definite acceptable pattern of older men being attracted to and falling for younger women/men. Perhaps it isn't that Smell was emotionally immature, but that Shaun was actually more mature for his age. After all, the group of skinheads that befriended him were also all older than him, so there must have been something about him that made all these older kids want to hang out with him. Certainly having to deal with being made fun of at school and losing his father at such a young age hardened him and made him wiser than his years. And we also don't know that Smell was only interested in him for kissing and having her tits sucked. In fact, he never did suck her tits, yet she still wanted to be his girlfriend, and I assume there was also a bit of an emotional connection there. It may happen more rarely than an older girl falls for a much younger guy, but I myself have been in that situation when the guy was more mature than his age.

I'm just disappointed by your double standards. Would you say that an older guy who falls for a younger guy or girl is retarded???

Andrejs Visockis said...

I see no double standards here. To begin with, I don't think it's generally accepted for any "mature" person, male or female, to be boyfriends/girlsfriends with a 12 year old. And I'm not out to condemn this particular relationship, as I have already pointed out. I simply find it comical and not very probable. And I hope it's up to me to say what I find comical or/and not very probable :)

Anonymous said...

Awesome film... One thing though in your descp, you say his mother only objected to his hair? Not so, she didn't want him to have the Martins. Just thought, you know... I'd mention that.

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sallylockhart said...

smell is 15 at the beginning of the film, it is her 16th birthday that shaun brings her a cake for

Anonymous said...

Im not sure what your all on but if an 18 year old chap was with a 12 year old girl he would be called a peado!
All in all though not bad film,does make you wonder about the small mindedness of some people.

Anonymous said...

Great review, as for the comments on Shaun and Smell, as someone else has said, Smell is 16 not 18, when they come to her birthday someone mentions how she is legal now, to which Smell replies "not that it ever made a difference". The age of consent here in the UK is 16, so she is 16. I still find it an odd age difference though.

Anonymous said...

I think smell is supposed to be 15 when they first kiss, and Shaun attends her 16th birthday. ("legal now" referring to the legal age for sex, rather than alcohol) but I could be wrong.

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