“This Is England” is a movie with no easy moves. Every expectation of violence leads to tenderness, the slightest sentimentality a prelude to destruction. For that’s how life really works and Shane Meadows’ spine-tingling specific, semi-autobiographical film about growing up skinhead in the early 80s of Thatcher’s Britain isn’t afraid to kick the shit out of cliches. The young Meadows is represented by 12-year-old Shaun whose father has been killed fighting in the Falklands War. Fortunately for Shaun, he finds a father figure in Woody, the caring if sometimes immature leader of the local skins, who introduces Shaun to the wonders of Ben Sherman shirts and Doc Martens boots, and more importantly to a camaraderie and protection this picked-on kid has never known. (There’s a hilarious running gag at the beginning in which Shaun finds himself forever having to justify his un-cool flared pants.)
That is until the recently released from prison Combo arrives on the scene to split Woody’s once loyal gang apart. And this is where Meadows’ directing really starts to shine, his attention to nuance remarkable. The happy-go-lucky montages of bashing abandoned buildings and stomping through deserted streets give way to another side of gang culture, one in which racism and xenophobia are viewed through the lens of nationalism and self-pride. Shaun places his innocent fate in the hands of Combo and his crew and is introduced to the sound of smooth-talking, well-dressed Pat Buchanan preachers, to the usual, rational head-spinning justifications (i.e., “We are not Nazis! We are fighting for the life of our country, from its being raped and pillaged by immigrants who are putting our brothers, our hardworking Englishmen out of work!”) This is where “This Is England” becomes that universal, timeless story of fear and its consequences.
Yet the film wouldn’t work at the high level it does if it weren’t for the performances of Thomas Turgoose as the angel-faced Shaun and Stephen Graham as the three-dimensional psycho Combo, a brilliant creation from this actor who is every bit as good as Russell Crowe was in his own early (Australian) skinhead flick “Romper Stomper.” Shaun is a gentle child so deeply wounded by the loss of his dad that he’s formidable. Since he has nothing to lose he’s fearless. This is what both Woody and Combo see in him, the first men in Shaun’s life to see that potential strength that others have missed. And simply put, Stephen Graham is jaw-dropping astounding. He can go from explosive violence to tears and back again in the blink of an eye – showing us the cause and effect and origins of hatred through the flash of a finger, a trembling lower lip. His performance is so specific it’s recognizable, thus doubly disturbing. We can feel his cold stare right through to our bones.
Which is probably because Shane Meadows tells stories from the inside out, his insider’s view a necessity for the exquisite detail. Not just the music crucial to skinhead culture, but the Skrewdriver graffiti spray-painted on tunnel walls. Not just the skinhead girls who shave their heads and dress like the boys, but the Siouxsie Sioux chicks who tag along as well. Not just the tough skins in suspenders and long black coats, but the older hangers-on who look and dress like someone’s unemployed dad. These are things you wouldn’t know unless you were deep inside that Oi! culture. And Shane Meadows was there as a quiet witness, during the war and Thatcherism, during the welfare state and the punk unity that splintered into racism and xenophobia. He was there absorbing it through all his senses, his heart and soul. And, fortunately for audiences everywhere, he has the talent to translate it wholly and lovingly to the screen. Yes, for better or for worse, this is England. And this is us.