England Calling: The Films of Shane Meadows
I went to film school with Shane Meadows. Not really, but a few years ago I did do a one-day film-making course in Nottingham that Shane supervised. He showed us which end of the camera to look through, split us into groups of three, and gave us a couple of hours to come up with a script and go out and shoot it. I'd like to report that my team came back with a masterpiece, but that might be an exaggeration. Let's just say the reviews I wrote over the next couple of weeks were probably more generous than usual.
As a rule, I don't believe critics should be too matey with directors, it's a lot easier to be objective about someone's work if you don't know them personally. But when I say that Shane is one of my favourite filmmakers, that's partly because of his enthusiasm, his sense of humour and his down to earth attitude.
I liked the fact that the first time I interviewed him - for his 60 minute debut Smalltime - he compared his film to 'a saladette,' like you'd find with a burger and chips at a motorway café. And the second time, that he 'fessed up to his criminal record - he'd been nabbed stealing a breast pump from Boots just five years earlier, at the grand old age of 20. 'I was pinching some sandwiches and thought I might as well get something for the woman down the road,' he told me. You don't get this kind of stuff from Sam Mendes or Stephen Frears - not in interviews, and not in their films either.
Meadows left school without too many qualifications, tried drama school (where he met his friend Paddy Considine) but both of them dropped out after six months. He started helping out at an adult learning centre that ran a film course. In return he got access to the camera and editing facilities, and he began to make shorts: quirky, funny, silly character pieces starring friends and family. Not only was he a natural, he had the knack for making everyone around him feel that same way.
The film got a lot of critical support and a reasonably large release for a black and white British film by an unknown director, but it flopped, and to be honest it's only patchily effective.
Maybe that was for the best. If it had been a success, Meadows might have been propelled out of the East Midlands and into the realm of 'career' filmmaking. Instead he was forced to keep working on a shoestring - a limitation that actually played to his strengths. He was able to stick to his own backyard, cast non-professionals (mostly kids, but also Paddy Considine in his first film), and workshop with them for several months. Together, they came up with A Room for Romeo Brass, one of the truest, sweetest and most painful films about growing up I've ever seen.
(Someone was kind enough to point out that I omitted this from the list of Best British films of the 90s a couple of weeks back, along with Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth - particularly inexplicable since I would rate these two right at the top if I had my head screwed on right - and Terence Davies too!)
What I love about Meadow's films is that they combine the naturalism you find in Ken Loach or Mike Leigh with a much larkier sense of the absurd, the daft prankish buffoonery that's so common here, and the brutal, unpredictable violence that unfortunately often comes with it. There are moments of stunning volatility in A Room for Romeo Brass and Dead Man's Shoes, scenes where the mood switches in an instant, laughter and danger get so mixed up you don't know whether to laugh or cry.
Often as not that threat is as much psychological as it is physical. Underneath the banter and bullshit, there's a bloody, beating heart here, an anguish that keeps erupting to the surface. It's there in Shane's new film, This Is England too, perhaps even more nakedly than before, in what is his most autobiographical to date.
This Is England is reviewed separately (here), but for now let me just say, it's as good as everyone says: five stars in Total Film, four stars in Empire, raves in Sight and Sound and from Mark Kermode… oh, and do check out www.shanemeadows.com for more on the man in question - it's the official fansite and Shane and his cast and crew post regularly on the forums.
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