Judge Adam Arseneau has a passion for red suspenders.
Run with the crowd. Stand alone. You decide.
An emotional and heartfelt introspective tale set to a ferocious political backdrop, This Is England is surprisingly profound, almost tender in its nostalgic coming-of-age reminiscence.
Facts of the Case
Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is a young boy growing up in the Midlands in the early eighties. His father was killed during the Falklands War, leaving him without a father figure in his life and some deep-seeded emotional issues. He gets picked on relentlessly at school for his unfashionable clothes and spends most of his time alone, wandering the landscape. One day he runs into a group of young skinheads hanging out under a bridge, who take pity on this sad young boy and take him under their wing. The leader, Woody, takes a particular shine to Shaun, and soon they deck him out in the appropriate dress, shave his head, and treat him kindly, giving him the friends and support group he so badly needed.
Suddenly, the harmony of the group is disrupted by the sudden return of Combo (Stephen Graham, Snatch), who spent a few years in jail taking the rap for Woody. He quickly reasserts his leadership over the group, and armed with new political and racial ideologies, converts the group of skinheads into followers of the National Front movement. Woody and his friends immediately depart the group, but young Shaun finds a strong father figure in Combo, and soon finds himself awash in hatred and anger.
A personal dabble into allegorical autobiography by writer/director Shane Meadows (Once Upon A Time in the Midlands), This Is England plays like a skinhead version of Stand by Me, a nostalgic and soul-searching look at growing up disaffected in the Midlands of England. Like all good teenage suburban sprawl films, the film focuses on the unnaturally sterile and lifeless existence of desolate dislocation, in this case Northern England. The concept of the gang is less a criminal organization and more a symbiotic family unit for the disaffected and bored youths who are unable (or unwilling) to form such bonds with their own family. For Shaun, running with the skinheads hold no taboo, no controversy—they are merely friendly faces in a storm of unhappiness, boredom, and bullying. As family units go, the group is surprisingly tender and nurturing, if a bit on the anarchistic side, until the return of Combo, who rapidly reasserts his leadership over the group. Like a snake-oil salesman of hatred and angst, Combo rapidly co-opting the group into his new white nationalism ideology he picked up in prison. Slowly, horrifyingly, the skinhead group schisms into those willing to follow Combo, and those who cannot stand up to him but refuse to adhere to his ideas. Young Shaun, so eager to please this new, strong male father figure, ends up tagging along to National Front rallies and all manner of terribleness.
As a period piece from the early Eighties in England, the film is excruciatingly detailed in crafting the illusion of the era—clothing, cars, haircuts, locations all perfectly selected. Much of the film is rooted deep in the politics of its era, laden with scathing criticisms of Thatcher-era politics, immigration, the Falklands War, and, of course, the National Front movement itself, a nasty bit of hatred that spread embarrassingly far throughout the country at the time. A knee-jerk response to the perceived threat of immigration in England, the movement set itself out on racial lines, and for some reason found resonance with some of the skinhead movement. Prior to this, the skinhead movement was a working-class response to the mod and punk scenes, with little in the way of a political agenda. Equating racism with skinheads today is simple, but This Is England does a good job illustrating how the roots of the movement were decisively non-violent, drawing its inspirations from the mod scene, new wave, and the popularity of Jamaican reggae music in the United Kingdom. Such violence and hatred were fundamentally at-odds with the carefree, racially divergent freedom of the subculture, but alas, those rotten apples have a way of spoiling things for all.
With Combo's return, the group begins to fracture along political lines Woody and his group never realized existed. The old leader galvanizes the troops, so to speak, armed with knowledge learned from prison about Thatcher, the Falklands War, and the National Front movement, and Shaun is swept up in the descent. Things tumble rapidly downhill from there, and the transition from the sweet, heartfelt happy-go-lucky first act to the grim second is troubling. The final sequence is like watching a set of fine china perched precariously on a rickety shelf, tumbling to the ground in agonizing slow motion—you can see it coming from a hundred miles away but are helpless to look away, let alone stop it.
In his debut acting performance, young Thomas Turgoose kicks out a stunning performance, full of humor, charm, and heart. At times, he puts on an air of confidence and anger, while others you can see him for the small, lonely boy he is. If he makes a career out of the acting, he'll be somebody to watch. Stephen Graham is painful to watch as Combo, not from a poor performance, but because of how effectively upsetting and uncomfortable a performance he turns out as the skinhead. You can see something dancing in his eyes the entire way through that seems just a bit too intense. A marvelously effective, if intimidating performance.
A humbling film, This Is England alternates between the gut-wrenchingly tragic decline into violence married with affirming nuances of life, beauty, and the human spirit. Through Shaun, we are told a tale of loneliness and apathy, but also one of friendship, comradeship, and youthful indiscretions. His descent into hatred and racism mirrors the decline of England during a bleak period of lower-class frustration and stagnation, faced with a controversial government, a poorly-received war, and high unemployment rates, none of which matter to young Shaun. He simply falls into the same trap, buys into the same malarkey that so many others buy into. After the camera stops rolling, it feels so poignant, so profound a tale, balanced between humor and heartbreak. On all three fronts—writing, directing, and acting—this film is a triumph.
The image is clean and free from print damage, with heavy color saturation and a haze-like softness at times. Indoor sequences get pretty messy, with evident graininess and washed-out black levels, but the visual style fits the film well. The cinematography is stunning, capturing some impressive visuals from the lonely English countryside and urban sprawls of the Midlands. The Dolby 5.1 track is clean and crisp, but a bit thin on bass response. The film is primarily dialogue-driven, with little in the way of effects, but the rear channels capture the soundtrack well. With music and style being integral to the skinhead subculture, This Is England roots many of its key sequences around a fantastic soundtrack, including songs by Toots & The Maytals, The Upsetters, The Specials, Strawberry Switchblade, and Dexys Midnight Runners, along with a beautifully atmospheric score by Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. English subtitles are included, which is a blessing—those thick rural accents can be tricky sometimes.
In terms of extras, the main feature is a commentary track featuring writer/director Shane Meadows, producer Mark Herbert, and young actor Thomas Turgoose (who went through puberty like a train wreck between the film and the recording of the commentary track, his voice dropping two octaves). The track is fantastic, a total laugh, with all laughing and singing along with the soundtrack as they delve into filming details. A short seven-minute "making of" featurette is also included, as well as a four-minute video interview with Meadows and ten minutes of deleted scenes (including an alternate ending) with a "play all" feature. For the nerds, two comprehensive and informative on-screen essays, "Skinhead Culture: Cropped, Braced & Booted" and "The Falklands: A Pathetic War" by Darrell Buxton are included to fill in some of the social and political backdrop to the film, both well-written and easily accessible. Toss in a theatrical trailer to round things off.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Rooting a film in such personal introspection inadvertently makes it a wee bit pretentious. It just does. There's nothing wrong with doing it—heck, directors do it all the time. However, it divides audiences like the parting of the Red Sea. On the one hand, some immediately find aspects that harmoniously resonate within their own experiences, forming connections and strong attachments to such films, while others just plain take offense at the self-indulgence.
Me, I usually go with the former. This Is England reeks of self-indulgence, but it smells awfully good to this reviewer; a perfect test subject who jotted down comparative notes of growing up annoyed, disaffected, and listening to loud music in a suburban pit of boredom. Other people will no doubt have radically different experiences, and, hey, that's cool.
Equal parts heartbreak and exuberant joy, This Is England is one of the best films of 2006 that nobody in North America got to see. Shane Meadows is rapidly proving himself to be one of the most talented and heartfelt British directors of his generation, and with good reason. In telling the story of one person's childhood, This Is England hits the nail right on the head. Like a time capsule taken from a generation past of loud music, controversial wars, and conservative politics, this is England. Not like today, right?
A definite purchase.
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