This Is England
Father figures, mentors, men and boys, these are relationships that crop up in all five of Shane Meadows' films, and most often they are central. In This Is England, twelve-year-old Shaun (a brilliant performance from newcomer Thomas Turgoose) is mourning his dad, killed in action in the Falklands. The year is 1983, and Thatcher is riding a wave of rekindled nationalism on the rump of that victory.
Shaun is lonely, vulnerable, and a ripe target for bullies. At an age when his identity is up for grabs he latches onto the kindness shown him by Woody (Joe Gilgun) and quickly falls in with him and his skinhead friends, Lol (Vicky McClure), Milky (Andrew Shim), Smell (Rosamund Hanson).
In short order he has the buzz cut, the Doc Martens, the red braces and the Ben Sherman shirt. His mum (Jo Hartley) is appalled - but Woody and the rest aren't thugs and the uniform doesn't mean he's going to war. These skins don't have an axe to grind, they're just banding together in recognition that no one else is looking out for them. Woody promises to protect the youngster, and we can see he's a good role model.
Then Combo crashes the party. Played with seething ferocity by Stephen Graham (Snatch), Combo is a different kind of animal; angry, wounded, and ready to lash out. He has the Cross of St George tattooed between his eyes, and a swastika on the back of his head. His influence is immediate, and the gang splinters into factions. Woody goes one way, but Shaun gravitates towards the impassioned rhetoric and strength he sees in Combo, a father figure who flatters his sense of injustice and betrayal.
It's the age-old appeal of fascism. Combo wraps his resentment and inadequacy in the flag and promises to kick the shit out of anybody who stands in his way - always making sure that the fight is of his choosing and the victim is weaker and out-numbered.
Fans of A Room for Romeo Brass will be reminded of Paddy Considine's Morrell, another manipulative loser who comes on strong to a much younger kid, and whose loyalties and convictions are twisted out of shape.
If This Is England lacks the sucker punch of the earlier film (we can take the measure of Combo in a glance) it makes up for it in the wider social canvas. The way, for example, that Meadows leaves no doubt that for all his pride, Combo is just a pawn in the hands of cynical National Front politicians. He's a terrific director of kids, too, and we're always reminded that Shaun is still an impressionable child - that there must be innocence before there is corruption.
The film's design is sharp enough to bring that unhappy period flooding back (as usual Meadows puts together a stonking soundtrack, this time mixing ska with reggae and 2-Tone).
As reported in the news, some local councils are exerting the right to overturn the BBFC's 18 certificate. I believe they are right to do so. The BBFC guidelines distinguish between pain that disturbs (so called 'strong violence') and pain for entertainment, the latter being more suitable for kids, apparently (like 300).
That's questionable logic in itself, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the real reason comes down to class. The history of censorship in this country is the story of the Establishment's fear of the working class. Working class kids, especially, are not to be trusted with a film about moral choices, racism, and national identity. Still, never mind, they can enlist in the army at 16 and it should be out on DVD by the time they're back from Iraq.
Titles related to this article