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This Is England
By Danny Evans
This Is England is a remarkable film about youth and identity. Everything after its stylistic opening montage – a warts and all I Don’t Mind the 80s over Toots and the Maytals – is frighteningly believable. It is the story of Shaun, a 12 year old picked on at school for the twin misfortunes of having lost his dad in the Falklands War and only having flares to wear on non-uniform day. He finds friendship and protection with a gang of skinheads led by the warm-hearted and funny Woody, having the time of his life taking the piss and smashing up abandoned buildings.
The tone of the film changes dramatically with the sudden entrance of Combo, an unhinged Liverpudlian just out of prison, whose time inside was apparently the result of taking the rap for Woody. Combo is a racist and splits the gang on this basis. Woody leaves and Shaun falls under the influence of the newcomer, with the film building in intensity to a vicious climax.
It is to director Shane Meadows’ credit that Combo is a far from one-dimensional character. Although under the sway of the National Front, parroting its anti-immigrant line, he appears as conflicted and contradictory as the quotes from skinheads in Nick Knight’s book Skinhead from which Meadows took his film’s title: “This is England. And They don’t live here. They know nothing about it… They’re living in detached houses. Driving around in a Rolls. Be honest. What the fuck are They going to know about Us…?” And “I don’t like blacks, I don’t want them in this country. But don’t put me name down. A lot of me mates are black geezers and some of them are a bit tasty.” Combo smokes weed, listens to ‘black’ music, and acknowledges that skinhead style was imported by Jamaican immigrants. The pride and honour he clings desperately to are superficial - all he has is his skin and a flag – antidotes to the shame and loneliness he feels. His violence is shown to be both cold and planned in his ‘war’ on the local Asian population, and emotional and schizophrenic in response to questioning or rejection, exploding most frighteningly out of jealousy at the black skinhead Milky’s story of a happy family background.
Fascism is shown in a realistic psychological context in this film, far more so than in, say, American History X; offering an opportunity to hide inadequacy in numbers: “All these people wouldn’t be here if it weren’t right” offers one of the gang at an NF meeting, while supplying a ‘justification’ for violence and hatred. As a result Combo emerges as both hideous and human, and the film is all the more powerful for this. The performance given by Stephen Graham is of such convincing intensity that he makes Robert Carlyle’s Begbie look like Little Jimmy Crankie.
Repeated images of the flag, both Union Jack and St George Cross, run through the film along with repeated examples of bullying, in light hearted and serious contexts. The flag flies over troops at the Falklands and royal wedding celebrations, and becomes a totemic symbol for the gang after Combo assumes leadership. Bullying is what Shaun seeks refuge from in the gang, but is what he is reduced to as Combo convinces him to fight on his dad’s behalf. Throughout the film England and its flag are shown to have no single or coherent meaning and in the film’s final beach scene, with echoes of Quodraphenia, Shaun launches a St George Cross into the sea, in an apparent rejection of the violence he now associates with it.
I’ve hardly seen any other films that have given me so much to think about but it’s far from a dry or somber affair. The violence and sadness linger, but there’s a warmth to it that is never overwhelmed. Friendship, laughter, dressing well and reggae music are shown to be the finest things in the world. The dialogue is naturalistic and the scenes with Shaun and his mum are superb; emotional but not sentimental, funny and familiar. It’s incredible to think that it’s fairly short and yet none of the key characters are compromised as a result. This Is England is a rare achievement that demands to be seen, featuring a boss soundtrack and at least two of the best acting performances you’ll see in ages.
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