Film of the Day: This Is England (2006)

September 7, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

Tonight sees the debut of Shane Meadow’s first TV series, This is England ’86 – a sequel/follow-up to his masterful film about growing up in Thatcher’s Britain.  So it’s as good a time as any to make This is England my Film of the Day.

And if that’s not good enough, Film4 is running a retrospective season of Meadows’ earlier films, including the little-seen rough gem that is Smalltime, made on video for about 10p back in the mid-90s.  Heartily recommended as an inspiration to budding filmmakers everywhere.

[Note on the review, which I wrote in 2007 after first seeing the film.  The final para is a wee bit spoilery, but it’s included here because I’m amazed at my prescience in detecting that Meadows had left the door open to continue the story!]

This is England
(Shane Meadows, GB, 2006)

…and it’s in a bit of a mess. Meadows’ bittersweet love letter to his nation’s contradictions is a pertinent warning against allowing discontent to fester

American This, American That. Hollywood has never been shy about using the name of its nation as a badge of authority, albeit often ironically, and the recent American Gangster is only the latest to join fellow Americans Gigolo, Pie, Psycho, and dozens of others as would-be definitive words on their subjects. Us Brits have always been a bit more reticent, a little bit ashamed in doing the same. This is England – one of the few high-profile examples to carry the name of its home – actually serves to explain why.

Meadows’ subject matter has always been the aimless drift suffered by ordinary, decent folks unlucky in life, and their recourse to violence when things don’t go well. In This is England, Meadows roots this experience in a specific context – the barren, unemployed Thatcherite Britain between the Falklands and the Miners’ Strike – and adds the authenticity of autobiographical experience to create probably his definitive word on the subject. The historical angle raises the film’s stakes above mere ‘grim up North’ portraiture; the result is a genuinely political statement about what happens to the dispossessed at home when the powers that be are fulfilling a post-colonial mandate to deliver freedom abroad. Despite being set a quarter of a century ago, the parallels with today’s Britain are inescapable, and it’s hard not to see this as a warning call.

With the increased scope comes a much larger scale. If the likes of A Room For Romeo Brass and Dead Man’s Shoes felt like short stories, this steps up to the bigger picture of a novel. It even forms a sort-of double bill with David Mitchell’s recent novel Black Swan Green, which dealt with similar themes of early 80s childhood, albeit from a more middle class perspective. This is England – given Meadows’ working class roots, and a protagonist who is a year older than Mitchell’s – is inevitably the wiser, darker cousin, with the narrative nucleus of Shaun’s coming of age spreads outwards to suggest an entire country suffering from growing pains.

That growth is reflected in the film’s structure. The first half hour is an absolutely joy: evocative in image and music, laugh out loud funny and framed by an undeniable love for the characters. Revolving around Joe Gilpin’s big brother friendliness as Woody, and the joviality of Andrew (Romeo Brass) Shim, Meadows draws you in and make you part of the gang, just as Shaun moves from troubled loner to respected equal. Yet even during the film’s salad days there are portents of what is to come. The characters have to find their moments of transcendence in a shithole, and Meadows frames the lyrical compositions and lolloping, good-natured action against derelict landscapes and the threat of incipient violence.

When the shit hits the fan, there’s a depressing inevitability to it. In Dead Man’s Shoes, Meadows managed to bring sympathy to the bullies who fell foul of Paddy Considine’s deadly avenger, by suggesting that these were fundamentally decent people turned sour by experience and circumstance. In This is England, he makes this process explicit by showing how the gang is undone by the arrival of a destabilising force. Like the character of Sonny in the earlier film, Combo is a born leader through intimidation, against who Woody‘s wet decency has no chance. His fearsome presence comes to control the film itself, the narrative turning on a dime with his moods. And Meadows pulls no punches: the verbal assault of Combo’s National Front dogma is grimly poisonous, and the air of rage is so resonant that you want to crawl away from the same film moments earlier you wanted to climb into.

The film’s real triumph is that Meadows knows that Combo’s hatred isn’t really about racism; it’s a disease, caused by washing in the unclean waters of poverty. The journey into extremism is mapped out with uncomfortable clarity by showing how Shaun, initially hesitant with the more odious aspects of Combo’s creed, is seduced by the appeal of having scapegoats to blame. Perhaps Combo was the same; certainly, he is driven by psychological deficiency. In the film’s closing stages, Meadows strips him bare to reveal the accumulated rejection caused by parental neglect, spurned romantic advances and victimisation by the State: revealingly, all we learn of his prison term is that he took the fall for a friend. There can be little sympathy but, crucially, Meadows makes us understand with the help of Stephen Graham’s life-like, superbly modulated performance.

The film ends on a question: has Shaun understood? Meadows closes the story with Shaun standing on a beach, looking out to sea – an (intentional?) echo of the famous climax to The 400 Blows, another story of a troubled child at a crossroads. Truffaut’s film ended on a freeze frame, a symbol of uncertainty…but here, for all Sean’s bitter experience, Meadows allows him the option of somewhere to go back to. This is England is a warning call, but it’s not too late to find a way out.

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