Movie Review by Simon Fox
Starring: Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Jo Hartley, Andrew Shim
Director: Shane Meadows
It’s 1983 and Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is a 12 year-old living in a small coastal town. His father died in the Falklands War, so he is being brought up by his mum Cynthia (Jo Hartley). Bullied at school for being different, he finds himself isolated and alone, and missing his dad.
Before long he meets and falls in with a motley crew of skinheads headed by Woody (Joe Gilgun) who spend their days hanging out in the local cafe and listening to ska music. He’s sucked into a world of partying, women, and Doc Martins, but finally seems to have found acceptance and the companionship he longs for.
However, this new found harmony is soon destroyed by the arrival of Combo, (Stephen Graham) a former gang member who has just been released from prison. Spouting racist jargon, and openly supporting the National Front, his actions split the group up. Woody is disgusted by him, all the more because one of the group Milky (Andrew Shim) is black. Woody tells the group to go, but some of them, including Shaun stay with Combo. Shaun feels an identity with him after Combo tells Shaun that looking at him is like looking in the mirror. They’ve both lost someone.
Shaun gets more embroiled into the dark world of Combo, who takes him to a National Front meeting, and on the way back Shaun shows Combo an England flag that he stole from the meeting. Combo tells him to display it in his window with pride. Shaun falls deeper under Combo’s influence and in one of the most disturbing scenes in the film Combo “coaches” him in shouting racist abuse at his local Asian shopkeeper. The gang then go on the rampage, harassing and abusing the local Asian community.
However, it becomes clear that Combo has problems of his own. After Woody’s girlfriend Lol (Vicky McClure), rejects his advances, he becomes more and more unstable. The final straw comes when he, Milky and the rest of the gang get stoned at his flat. He and Milky initially bond, but as Milky talks about his loving family, Combo flies into a rage and beats him to a pulp. He then turns on his friends and attacks them too. When Shaun sees what Combo he has done he is distraught.
Back at home Shaun browses through some pictures of his father. In the final scene he throws his once cherished England flag into the sea.
Based partly on Meadows own childhood, THIS IS ENGLAND is a film not just to be watched but experienced. It perfectly suits Meadows style of intimate camerawork making the viewer feel that they are simply an observer watching the action unfold around them. The effect on your senses is rather like being repeatedly hit over the head with an iron bar.
Like his previous work such as the powerful DEAD MAN’S SHOES, Meadows uses small scale set pieces and situations to deal with universal issues. THIS IS ENGLAND is about loneliness, absence, the nature of identity, and the sense of frustration and anger at loss. Meadows cleverly uses his characters as a microcosm to reflect the fear and insecurity of a nation that is directionless and also struggling for it’s own identity after the Falklands War.
Rather than a straightforward rites of passage story, the film is a snapshot of life at that time seen through the eyes of a 12 year-old. By the end of it Shaun hasn’t suddenly gone from boy to man, but can be seen to be taking his first tentative steps towards adulthood. The symbolic act of throwing the flag into the sea shows he is able to start again and move on. Shaun begins to realise what it means to be English and what it means to be himself.
Like other Shane Meadows films “HIS IS ENGLAND lives or dies by its cast and in this case he has got it spot on. Thomas Turgoose is a revelation as Shaun, and it’s hard to believe he’s never acted before. He displays just the right amount of vulnerability, frustration and charm without lapsing into sentimentality. He is in nearly every scene yet manages to carry the entire film, an incredible achievement. While Stephen Graham is superb as Combo, bringing a complexity and insecurity to a character that we should just fear and despise, but actually feel sorry for. The rest of cast are virtually faultless, particularly Joe Gilgun as Woody and Andrew Shim as Milky, who gives a wonderfully understated performance as the only black member of the group.
However, not all of the film works perfectly. Some situations are a bit contrived, and its depiction of the world divided into good and bad skinheads a bit simplistic. The ending is also a tad predictable, but these are very minor quibbles with a film that shines.
It has raw, powerful storytelling, a script and performances to die for, and a cracking soundtrack to boot. THIS IS ENGLAND is quite simply one of the best British films for years, and confirms writer/director Shane Meadows as one of this country’s brightest new talents.