Saturday, 15 September 2007
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.