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Twelve-year-old Shaun hooks up with a bunch of fun-loving skinheads during the long hot summer of 1983, until the spectre of racism drives the group apart. Shane Meadows' most personal film to date
At 12-years-old, and young-looking even for his age, Shaun Fields (Thomas Turgoose) looks hardly capable of breaking and entering a boiled egg. As elder skinhead Combo (Stephen Graham) jokes, he looks like "he came out of a box, like an Action Man, or Barbie doll". Shaun's loss of innocence is at the heart of Shane Meadows' most autobiographical work to date (notice how 'Shaun Fields' deliberately echoes 'Shane Meadows'), along with ever-relevant subjects like absent and surrogate fathers, Western imperialism and white working-class marginalisation, particularly in the post-industrial suburbs.
Right on time, the film also addresses the biggest flashpoint issue of the day; an incipient racism virtually legitimised under recent governments and in sections of the press, stoking anti-Muslim sentiment. This Is England packs a lot into its 100 minutes, but never feels hectoring. Therein lies its power. Not to mention a terrific, danceable soundtrack, laid down with love.
"I've been picked on three times today, all because of my trousers," Shaun tells poodle-permed mum Cynthia (Jo Hartley), whose soldier husband died a year earlier in the Falklands. Other schoolyard taunts cut deeper: "How many people can you fit in the back of a Mini? Two in the front, two in the back - and your fucking dad in the ashtray."
Salvation comes in the form of kindly, fair-minded skinhead Woody (Joe Gilgun) and his apparently parentless gang of puppyish, moon-faced boys and preternaturally aged girls, all pinched faces and feathercuts. Little older than Shaun himself, burdened with the same juvenile insecurities, they're nonetheless better dressed in their immaculate Ben Shermans and cherry red Docs. Shaun signs up, receives his regulation uniform and haircut.
Life is now a fizzy sherbet rush of trashing empty houses on decrepit Nottingham estates daubed with graffiti ('Maggie is a twat') and getting an education in skinhead music - an authentic mix of 2-Tone and rock-steady. Shaun also gets an education in girls via beanpole Smell (Rosamund Hanson), during some of the film's funniest scenes. "You might look about four," drawls Smell, "but you kiss like a 40-year-old." As usual, Meadows gets great, moving performances from his young cast.
When the older, damaged Combo shows up, newly vomited from prison, he drives a nail into the group, exemplified in his loaded question for Milky (A Room For Romeo Brass's Andrew Shim), their sole black skinhead. "Do you consider yourself English or Jamaican?" Combo spells out his call to arms: "For 2,000 years this little island has been raped and pillaged by people who would want a piece of it. For what? Just so we could open the floodgates and say 'come in'? Now three-and-a-half million of us can't find jobs 'cos they're taking them all."
Margaret Thatcher is also deeply unpopular with Combo for having marginalised the far right by whipping the immigration issue, and the union flag, from under them. Then there's her war in the Falklands, shipping fine upstanding white men to a "phoney war to kill a load of shepherds".
Having convinced Shaun his father died in vain, Combo drags his splinter cell to NF branch meetings led by Frank Harper's Lenny ("We're the true voice of this country, of the people who pay their taxes.") They harass the Asian locals and struggle with racist graffiti - "Hey, how many effs in 'Off?'" - until a brutal incident makes Shaun think again.
Working on a characteristically modest budget, Meadows and crew have fashioned a fantastically authentic drama: from the recreation of the era's dingy landscapes; its youth cults (exerting a pull on suburbanites long after their metropolitan counterparts were morphing into Tacchini-clad casuals); that exhilarating soundtrack (Toots And The Maytals, Specials, UK Subs); and the tangled political climate set against a backdrop of mass unemployment, working class disenfranchisement and a phoney war. This is England, indeed.
Courageously, the film also rescues the skinheads from all-encompassing neo-Nazi associations. The movement's origins lay in a shared celebration by white working-class Britons and the Rude Boys of Jamaican music, a multiculturalism made more potent and pronounced during post-punk.
Though leaving one in no doubt about the stupidity and crassness of the far right (Combo's race-hate merchants give Smell porn mags for birthday presents. "What do you give her porno for?" cries Shaun exasperatedly. "She's a woman, she's got her own nipples") it also digs deeper, trying to find out what makes them tick. Make no mistake, despite its low-key approach This Is England is a deeply political film, but here renders the political personal, particularly when depicting the far-reaching consequences of war on the families left behind.
The use of The Smiths' 'Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want' at the finale not only captures the film's melancholy yearning, but, historically, heralds the new wave of white working class indie culture, in which Morrissey's brand of wistful introspection would succeed the skinhead's sulphate-fuelled moonstomping; at least for a while. Good times for a change.
In April 2007, just prior to the film's release, the British Board Of Film Classification slapped the film with an 18 certificate (though Bristol City, Camden and Westminster councils later successfully whittled it down to a 15), decreeing that the movie's use of "vicious racial language... might give out the wrong message to an impressionable audience".
The move didn't just preclude Turgoose from seeing his own film, but did prevent Meadows from screening it to 15-year-old schoolchildren, as planned, to "show the dangers of bullying, peer pressure and racism to young people".
Nevertheless, the film went on to win 'Best British Film' at the 2008 Baftas.
The film is dedicated to Thomas Turgoose's mother, Sharon, who died in 2005.
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