This is England
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School is out for summer, and 12 year old Shaun is about to find a dangerous new group of friends. Having lost his father in the Falklands War, life has been lonely in this grim coastal town in northern England. When Shaun meets the local skinheads, however, their companionship and even their violence appeal to Shauns hurt and rage. In Combo, an older volatile skinhead, Shaun finds a big brother and under Combos leadership, the gang and young Shawn will arrive at an irreversible act of violence.
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First, lonely Shaun is befriended by a fun-loving bunch of skinheads led by the affable Woody (Joe Gilgun). Woody and his mates are a likable and fairly harmless lot, and their scenes together are quite entertaining. But the party doesn't last forever: Soon a rift forms in the group when their old friend Combo (Stephen Graham) returns from a stint in prison transformed into a nationalistic neo-Nazi, and Shaun chooses to side with his seething posse.
In the hands of lesser talents, Combo might have been portrayed as a one-dimensional racist monster, and it would be a total mystery as to why Shaun would be drawn to him. But it's a credit to both actor Graham and screenwriter Meadows that there's so much more to the character: Combo is handsome and charismatic, he sympathizes with the fatherless Shaun, and though cursed with a frightening, hair-trigger temper, he also shows vulnerability; furthermore, even if you don't approve of his rants or how he terrorizes the local Pakistani immigrants, at least you can sense the frustration and fear behind his words and deeds. Indeed, the entire cast is uniformly strong; Turgoose, Gilgun, and Graham are the dominant figures here, but the many fine supporting players include Jo Hartley as Shaun's caring mother, Andrew Shim as Woody's Afro-Jamaican pal Milky, and Vicky McClure as Combo's former girlfriend Lol.
I must note that, while TIE is an undeniably personal story for Meadows (it was mostly inspired by incidents from the British writer-director's own childhood), you don't have to be a Brit who grew up in the '80s to appreciate it; for one thing, the notion of the gang-as-surrogate-family is timeless and universal. Also, when Combo rages about unemployment, cheap immigrant labor, a "fake war," and needing to "fight" to take back his country, it hits uncomfortably close to home. (Much as I hate to say it, just replace the references to "Pakis" with "Mexicans," Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with President Bush, and the Falkland Islands with Iraq, and such scenes could almost be taking place here in the US today.)
As Shaun falls further under Combo's influence, what started as a funny and sweet (if gritty) coming-of-age tale becomes as disturbing and powerful as Meadows' previous feature, the 2004 anti-revenge thriller Dead Man's Shoes. When I first caught DMS on DVD earlier this year (my first exposure to Meadows' work), I thought that it was nearly as good as anything by fellow Brit Mike Leigh (whose films I've admired for their realistic, emotionally rich style) and that Meadows was a talent worth keeping an eye on. TIE only further confirms my initial opinions of the guy, and I will be looking forward to any projects he has planned for the future.
This is England is one of the greatest efforts I've yet discovered to completely capture a time and place. Admittedly I'm an American who never visited 1980s Britain, but the film's gritty yet poignant visuals of urban decay and anti-authority fashion make This is England's self-contained world fascinating and engrossing.
The story of Shaun coming of age in a time and place where love is scarce and comes in sometimes horrific forms is fascinating and told with remarkable restraint. Beautiful performances make every character, no matter how minor, believable and fascinating. Shaun comes of age in a way that displays his own turbulence while never losing sight of the ugliness of those already living in the adult world of war and hatred.
This is England is ambitions without being overly contrived. It tells a small story very well, and takes a very un-pretty idea and makes it immensely compelling.
If you have any interest in coming-0f-age stories, check this one out.