Sunday, May 13, 2007

Film Review: This Is England, This Is Masterful

The first obvious thing to do when reviewing a film or book is to take an interest in the director or author. To interrogate their past and look for associations between their personal life and the hidden message that you feel is contained within their work. More often than not the association is not there but constructed for the sake of pluralizing interpretation. I am usually the first one to declare the death of the author, and try to concentrate on the work itself but for Shane Meadows ‘This is England’ it would be an injustice to do so.

The film is in effect, the autobiography of the director and his coming to age under Thatcher’s regime in the early 80’s. The entire film is based on his own experiences with the UK skinhead movement of the early eighties. The opening scenes immediately depict a riot between workers and police during the Miner’s strike and gradually photograph the depravation within white working class communities in the early 80’s. There are quotes from Thatcher preaching about the need to wage war in the Falklands and brings home the all too familiar war rhetoric used by Blair during the invasion of Iraq. Apparently, Shane Meadows has never been one to shy away from drawing on his own history for his films, rooting all of his work thus far in the white working class English midlands that are his own roots.

Young Thomas Turgoose stars as Shaun – a twelve year old boy raised by his single mother. His father is mysteriously absent and sorely missed. We later realise that his father died during the Falklands war. An awkward child Shaun is teased and bullied by other children over the usual things - the out of style clothing that is all his mother can afford and his absent father, the latter of which provokes him to violence. Shaun lives a solitary life until he is essentially adopted by Woody, an older teen skinhead, and his small group of friends. Though all signs are that Woody has some sort of darker past this particular group are a happy lot, interracial, and mostly just looking to have a good time while providing the loyalty and support that is otherwise entirely lacking from their lives.
The first half an hour is hilarious and contains everything that is great about being young and not giving a fuck. There are side splitting scenes for any working class bloke that can identify with the confused raw aggression of smashing windows and running riot. No malicious intent and too young to realise the right and wrong of the situation. Gadget is the fat whipping boy who feels well pissed over this young lad moving up the hierarchy ahead of him. Each bloke has his place, each level of hierarchy is respected and the leader Woody maintains order and respect amongst the lads. Shaun is coming of age and finds his own identity within this small close knit group of Skins. He shaves his head, buys the doc martins and proudly wears his spotless Ben Sherman in every scene. The mother does not seem too bothered and is happy that her lonely son has found a brother like figure in Woody.

Everything is working well for Shaun until the arrival of Combo; an old friend of Woody's who has just spent three years in jail. The mood of the film immediately changes with the arrival of this older more politically aggressive skinhead. And if Woody represents the happier face of the skinhead movement, more interested in two tone Ska and having a laugh than anything else, then Combo is the grim underbelly, representing all of the negatives that come to mind with the skinhead label. Combo is militantly political and his presence immediately divides the group into those who, like Woody, are simply looking for a bit of craic and comradeship and those who are drawn to the racist element of the movement.

If this were a Hollywood film Shaun would follow Woody and that would be the end of it, but this is based on real life which is seldom so simple. If Woody was a surrogate brother for Shaun then Combo quickly becomes established as a father figure. Shaun simply idolises the man, drawn by his strength and passion and the strength that he offers. Blind to the dark consequences of Combo's beliefs it isn't long before Shaun is mimicking his every move spray painting racist slogans, attending political rallies and issuing threats to Pakistani shop keepers. It all leads to a cruel awakening ... This Is England is a coming of age movie like no other. Beyond simply dealing with his own adolescence Shaun must come to terms with aggression, racism, hatred and violence with absolutely no one to guide him through the process. It is above all else, a depiction of the rise of right wing nationalism amongst the white working class under Thatcher.

Combo, although aggressive and full of hate is also a likeable character. He offers unconditional support to his ‘troops’. He guarantees them security and becomes a replacement for all that is lost in their poverty stricken lives. In a remarkable scene he rallies against the economic policies of Thatcher and the poverty it has created for working class people, only to make the all too familiar conclusion that it is the immigrants who must take the blame. He hates Thatcher and the poverty around him and needs someone to blame. Thus, the film depicts the truth behind most racist mentality and uncompromisingly states the truth behind the support for right wing ideology.

Combo has obvious emotional problems. He almost cries when discussions on family life take place. He is lonely, desiring love and one discerns that he too is a victim of an authoritarian father and poverty. He was bullied by his father and bullies everyone else around him. This is a theme that runs throughout the film. The whipping boy in all the groups finds someone else to become the whipping boy. Thus, there is a Freudian connection between the authoritarian paternalistic instinct and its political results: ring wing nationalism. He wants to father Shaun and Shaun wants a father. The conclusion is obvious, an unhealthy but loving relationship. Combo is the sort of character that would be deathly easy to reduce to a cartoon, the simply minded violently racist thug. And he is those things but he is much more as well and combo easily takes on the complicated psychology of this man. He is a menacing physical presence, a man desperate to be proven strong; fiercely loyal to his friends, as truly protective and caring for Shaun as he can be, and at point’s appalled at his own capacity for violence.

Meadows is to be commended for his treatment of this very difficult material. He tackles the rise of nationalism through an uncompromisingly honest depiction of life in white working class England during the eighties. It also offers a more honest role to the individual personality and the psychological baggage that comes with loss and fear than any structural and theoretical account of fascism. He is also one who remembers that the racist element of the skin movement is actually only a relatively small subset of the group and while he certainly does not gloss over the negatives of that element he gives equal time to other aspects of the movement as well: the camaraderie and sense of family that drove it in its high points not to mention the simple fact that outside of the racist subset it was actually an inter-racial movement.

This is England is a masterful film: vibrant, uncompromising, complex, full of life, remarkably unsentimental and an unflinchingly honest account of how the rise of ring wing nationalism occurred in white working class communities under Thatcher.

This review was first published on by Chief.

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