Shane Meadows achingly beautiful presentation of pure cinema in This is England, 2006 is one of my favourite films to revisit annually.
It follows 12-year old Shaun who lives with his widowed mother after his father passed away whilst in the Falkland’s war 0f 1982, between Argentina and the United Kingdom. Set a year after in ’83, the film sees Shaun befriend a group of skinheads.
The group embodies the true spirit of skinhead which is a subculture that has had many revivals and had longevity and fashion and music since. Early skinheads merged elements of the mod subculture, Jamaican British and Jamaican immigrant rude boy culture – heavily identifying with working class experiences, rejecting austerity and listening to ska and reggae music.
The first half of the film follows the group as they initiate Shaun with the ultimate skinhead makeover and activities common at the time, senseless vandalism in abandoned buildings – a bleak and restless reality. Woody, played by Joseph Gilgun is the gregarious and polite selected leader who takes Shaun under his wing. The second half introduces Combo, a tough skinhead who just finished a three year prison sentence for a crime involving Woody but which he avoided incarceration for. When Combo returns, so too does a dark cloud that hangs over these characters, forcing them to confront the underlying disease of the society – Racism. The story explores the everyday life of this group of kids and how they navigate their way through the Thatcher administration.
The characterization and arch’s are written so purely and with such attention to detail. Meadows film serves as a strong foundation on which to build the hit series that followed; This is England ’86/ ’88/ ’90. It’s so easy to fall in love with the gang of friends, minus the deeply troubled Combo. Played powerfully by the incredibly talented Stephen Graham, Combo is a complex character at war with his own mind. He has a voice inside that pushes him to stand for something that, deep down exits due to the inadequacy of is own life. We see this inner turmoil in one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve seen in film. Combo quizzes Milky on his home life, family and traditions. (The pacing of this scene is executed phenomenally). Combo’s mental stability rapidly deteriorates the more he sees the qualities of Milky that he is envious of. He proceeds to beat him to a unresponsive, blood pulp.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment for me, aside from the brutality, is the moment in which Milky comments on Combo’s music choice (Percy Sledge’s Dark End of the Street) explaining that this is music he grew up on and that his uncle’s introduced him to. It’s a perfect script to encapsulate how the cultural appropriation of Jamaican, West Indies and Caribbean food, music and lifestyle was so prevalent and enjoyed with assumed ownership. Combo enjoys the marijuana, the music, the fashion, even receives an invitation from Milky to join he and his family for dinner one day. Yet he still cannot implement rational and human decency to accept and exist alongside Milky.
Thomas Turgoose’s performance as Shaun is so sweet and naïve that you could feel the emotions so purely as he witnessed Combo’s attack on Milky. Prior to which, he succumbed to the allure of Combo as he pitched his nationalist spiel of how unnecessary the Falkland’s war was. No kid wants to believe his father died for nothing. So he searches for meaning and a way to make his father proud, looking up to Combo as a father figure albeit tortured and politically raging. Filmed through a social-realist lens, Meadows offers a poetic nostalgia on the weariness of a nation, reeling from a senseless war which just further promoted the underlying disdain for the ‘other’.
The film’s score perfectly accompanies the mood of each scene, with the volume being kept high in certain scenes to allow for certain actions and expressions to speak for themselves. Just take Ludovico Einaudi’s score during Combo and the gang’s racial tirade on a group of kids playing football. The beauty of the sombre score highlights the vulgarity of the scene in front of us.
This film causes a mixed bag of emotions to arise, (which are the best types of films I suppose). I feel a sense of British nostalgia for, in one way, a much simpler time, regarding technology and the day to day. But in another way, the shameful truth of Britain’s role in systemic racism makes me cringe. It’s important to feel both ways about it, I believe.
We need the truth, we need it for history. But we also need to remember that there was a skinhead sensibility, the original sensibility that consisted of goodness, positivity and a celebration of a peaceful coexistence.