Saturday, October 06, 2007

This is England

If nothing else, Shane Meadows' autobiographical This Is England, set not long after the country's 1982 skirmish in the Falkland Islands, will prove eye-opening to those viewers, like myself, whose knowledge of skinhead culture has until now been gleaned largely from Camper van Beethoven songs. We see the movement through the blinkered eyes of twelve-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), a truculent outcast who's been emotionally unmoored ever since his father was killed in action. Stumbling onto a group of older boys decked out in Ben Sherman button-downs and Doc Martens, who quickly adopt him as a sort of pint-sized mascot, Shaun finds the camaraderie and sense of direction he hadn't realized he needed, forming an especially close bond with genial gang leader Woody (Joseph Gilgun). But the sudden arrival of ardent National Front supporter Combo (Stephen Graham), newly released from prison and looking to steer his old gang in a more virulent direction, lures the impressionable, angry Shaun to the dark side.

There's a winning lead performance from 13-year-old newcomer Thomas Turgoose playing a put-upon lad called Shaun in the run-down Grimsby of 1983. His dad was a serviceman killed in the Falklands and he's perennially getting picked on for this, and for his horrible flared jeans which make him look, as one bully cruelly puts it, like Keith Chegwin's son. Sloping and moping his way home after a standard-issue school day of humiliation, Shaun gets waylaid by some skins in a dodgy underpass, but instead of yet more battering, the gang give him sympathy and understanding; they become Shaun's only friends, and with a new Ben Sherman shirt and number one cut, Shaun has new pride and a new identity.

The gang's leader is Woody - a cheerful, sparky performance from Joe Gilgun - and they have an African-Caribbean member facetiously nicknamed Milky, played by Meadows regular Andrew Shim; Shaun even finds romance with one of the group's girl-punk fellow travellers: a languid and rather elegant older woman called Smell (Rosamund Hanson) who earnestly explains to Shaun's mum that she is called that simply because it rhymes with Michelle. The idyll is soon destroyed with the highly unwelcome appearance of Combo, a ferocious and sinister skin warrior just out of prison, played by Stephen Graham. He demands the group join his National Front cell, and turn out for an NF meeting in a tatty pub, addressed by one of the movement's suit-wearing officer class, played in cameo by Frank Harper.

Turgoose is the picture's heart and soul, and it's a terrifically natural, easy and commanding performance. Turgoose's open face radiates charm, and then, when he goes over to the dark side of racism, a creepy, anti-cherubic scorn: almost like one of the little blond kids in Village of the Damned. But Meadows is always concerned to preserve a sympathetic core to Shaun, and in fact to all the skins. Even the deeply objectionable Combo is shown to be suffering from emotional pain.

Like Meadows' earlier pictures, Dead Man's Shoes and A Room for Romeo Brass, This Is England is about younger, vulnerable figures being taken under the wing of older, flawed men, and this personal theme here finds its richest and maturest expression yet. As to whether we should buy its implied leniency about skinhead culture: that is another question. The West Indian influence is advanced as proof that skins were not necessarily racist: yet it can't cancel out Combo's hate campaign against South Asians, the "Pakis" who "smell of curry", a campaign which goes quite unchallenged or even unremarked upon by any of the skins, good or bad.

Meadows appears to want to find emotional truths behind the bravado, to find reasons for the male rage. It's a valid quest, and there are telling and touching moments, particularly between Turgoose and Rosamund Hanson. I found myself wishing that their love story could occupy more of the film, maybe for the same reason that the Shane Meadows film I have enjoyed most is the one his real fans loathe: the comedy Once Upon a Time in the Midlands. But from the get-go of this drama, it is obvious that things are heading only one way: towards a climactic flourish of violence, and it's a glum business wondering to whom and from whom this is going to happen. This is a violent subject, and these are violent people, and yet I couldn't help feeling that Meadows is, as so often, more comfortable with machismo than with the humour and gentleness which play a smaller, yet intensely welcome part of his movies. However agnostic I confess to still feeling about his work, there's no doubt that Meadows is a real film-maker with a growing and evolving career, and with his own natural cinematic language. When I think of his films, I think, for good or ill: this is English cinema, and the reggae soundtrack is a plus too.