Fearful Symmetry

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This Is England

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Skinhead

Skinhead

I’ve been following Shane Meadows’ career since he first feature Twenty-Four Seven. Last year there was talk of his next film being some skinhead flick set in the 80s. That sounded interesting — all his films had been worth seeing even a relative dud like Once Upon A Time In The Midlands — but I wasn’t prepared for just how brilliant his latest was going to be. This is his best film by far and the best British film for some time.

It’s set back in the 80s – and right from the off, with a clip of Roland Rat filling the screen it’s going to be a certain type of 80s, an ITV 80s with Knight Rider and Blockbusters. A bit different for me – I was more a BBC lad but the rough Midland’s council estate that Shaun, the films’ main protagonist, rides his bike through strikes close to home – Yuppies are a long way from here; this is other side of the Thatcher ‘economic miracle’Shaun is having a miserable time of it – a year ago his dad was killed in the Falklands (footage of which is mixed in with the garish tv shows) and, small for his age, dressed in out-of-fashion patterned jumpers and flares, he’s relentlessly bullied at school (“Woodstock’s that way!”).

On the last day of school before the summer holidays on his way home he comes on a gang of skinheads, but instead of more harassment the gang’s leader Woody tries to cheer him up and soon he’s a member of the gang. Woody’s girlfriend takes some hair clippers to his head and then dressed in shirt, jeans and boots he becomes a fully-fledged skinhead. Though in one hilarious scene his mother refuses to buy Doc Martin ‘thug boots’ but instead “special boots, from London”. Amiable and fun-loving with none of the racial hatred that would later became to be associated with the skins – they even have a black member, Milky – the gang spend their time drinking tea or beer, listening to ska or going ‘hunting’ – dressing up in ridiculous fancy dress to smash up abandoned flats. It looks like Shaun is set for his best summer ever.

Unfortunately things take a dark turn when Combo, an older associate of the gang returns from a prison stretch. He starts to undermine Woody from the off and is soon infecting the gang with his race hatred. After one impassioned rant against immigrants he draws a line on the floor with his own spit; a line he expects the others to hold. Woody and some of the others immediately walk out. Shaun is left behind – transferring his need for a father figure from Woody to Combo.

Combo, in a brilliantly terrifying performance by Stephen Graham, is full of self-loathing and bitterness and barely suppressed anger. Violence is inevitable but it’s strikes out in, to me, in an unexpected direction and for unexpected reasons. And the final ending of This Is England is truly haunting.

Bullying runs through the whole film – with Shaun bullied from the beginning. Also there’s some subtle bulling going on in the gang even before the arrival of Combo, with the fat and stupid Gadget worried about loosing his place in the pecking order to a younger kid. Combo is full of ‘Englishman pride’ rhetoric and takes the gang to a National Front meeting for more of the same, but his campaign to ’stem the flood of immigrants’ amounts to little more than graffiti (“How do you spell ‘off’!”) and pathetically stealing a football from three Muslim lads before harassing an Asian shopkeeper. This is all set against footage of the Falklands with rock-hard paratroopers sent in against poorly trained and scared Argentine conscripts.

Meadows has obviously poured his heart and soul into this autobiographical story (swapping Shaun for Shane). There’s a gritty rawness in the filming and the performances, seen in his other films but used to even greater effect here – although may be a little too naturalistic and rough in parts, Thomas Turgoose as Shaun is a revelation.

Oh and the sound track, filled with ska and 80s pop classics is an absolute killer.

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Written by Fearful Symmetry

July 2, 2009 at 3:36 pm

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