Shane Meadows has been steadily building a strong career in British independent cinema and his latest, a coming-of-age drama set in the summer of 1983 England, has lofty expectations on its shoulders. Based on Meadows own experiences growing up, newcomer Thomas Turgoose plays 12-year-old Shaun. Bullied at school for wearing flared trousers on non-uniform day and unhappy living with his mother, he is befriended by an older, oddball bunch who promise to make his summer an enjoyable experience. Although he initially has fun, when ringleader Combo (Stephen Graham) is released from prison and returns to the group armed with a racist attitude, Shaun finds he is lured into a dark and shadowy side of English society fuelled by BNP propaganda.
Meadows’ portrait of 1980s Thatcher-era Britain is sure to upset Daily Mail readers as an unforgiving insight into extreme skinhead attitudes, but, like A Room for Romeo Brass (1999), he sets calming waters before whipping up a storm. The opening montage gives us fond memories of the 80s with clips of popular television shows such as Knightrider and Blockbusters among footage of Margaret Thatcher’s general election win and from the war in the Falklands. Shaun’s skirmish at school ends quite comically and it is a relief when he finds friendship with the group led by nice-guy Woody (the excellent Joseph Gilgun).
For a while Shaun can relax as he adopts their dress code of Ben Sherman shirt, braced and turned-up jeans even if his mother won’t buy him the Doc Martins he needs to truly complete the outfit. Even though he is introduced to drink, drugs and girls, it is all harmless enough and the older crowd know how to look after him. These first 45-minutes play out more like a light, early evening drama compared to the nastiness that follows.
An unforgiving insight into extreme skinhead attitudes.
Combo’s arrival shakes up the dynamic of the group. Launching into an attack on Thatcher and the settling of what he sees as too many foreign people on British soil, he seeks to take vengeance against anyone who is not what he considers “a true Brit”. Following this racist outburst, Woody and the girls leave along with others such as Milky (Andrew Shim), the only black guy among them. Shaun, however, remains and is caught up in the nationalistic showboating including the sacking of an Indian-run local store. This sudden change of mood from light to very dark comes as suddenly as other Meadows films, and pushes it tenuously close to the edge of acceptability at times.
It is hard to recognise the England depicted here. Together with bigoted views towards a growing multicultural society and few clues from any of the locations that it wasn’t filmed more than 20 years ago, there is the bad hair, bad fashion and arguably bad music to go with it (excluding the ska and reggae that Meadows adeptly uses in many of his movies). As a writer and director drawing on his own experiences, Meadows effectively transports us back to a time when life was very different and being politically correct could see you ostracised by your friends. This is England will get most shaking their heads at the violence dished out for no good reason, as it airs a dirty history of British society swept under the landscape now.
There is an element of frustration that creeps in towards the end when Meadows mines the depths of Combo’s mind with predictably vicious results that are telegraphed from the moment of his arrival. In what follows, the director fails to offer any satisfactory closing moments save for an indication of the effect the brutality has on Shaun. Given the towering presence Combo has thanks to Graham’s commanding performance, it is disappointing Meadows suddenly veers away from this character, however it does not detract from This is England’s provocative themes and issues raised for debate. It lacks the emotional pull of A Room for Romeo Brass and Dead Man’s Shoes (2004), yet is nonetheless emphatically engrossing with standout performances.