Eleven year-old Shaun Fields is on a downward slope at school, getting into fights because his rag-day trousers are unfashionably flared – but really because his dad is dead, killed while serving in the Falklands war. He half-hates his mum for equally trivial/serious reasons and has no friends, until he encounters an amiable group of older lads who take him under their collective wing – more or less. Through them Shaun goes to parties, meets girls, plays at petty vandalism and starts to come out of his shell. The group’s leader takes a shine to his pluck, while the other hanger-on, slow and fat, feels threatened by the newcomer’s popularity.
All these issues are over-shadowed by the return to society of Combo, a forcefully charismatic skinhead and former mentor to the gang’s current leader – but the relationship has soured. Shaun’s new family splits and he finds himself siding with the darker half, embraced by Combo with a flattering intensity, one which also fuels his right-wing aggression. Shaun encounters a highly-charged world of nationalistic pride and racially motivated violence, but there is a sense of family, of camaraderie, which he desperately needs and which makes him content. It is only when the difference between family values and Combo’s values is made crystal clear that Shaun’s eyes are opened, too late to help but not too late to learn.
When a man named Shane Meadows makes a film about a boy named Shaun Fields, you know you are in auto-biographical territory. Apparently based on the writer-director’s own experiences as a young boy, This Is England portrays a well-realised world of the early 1980s in which some very believable characters, universally well performed, do some very believable things – almost to the point of cliché (and maybe delete the almost).
As in Twenty Four Seven, A Room For Romeo Brass and Dead Man’s Shoes, Meadows demonstrates a “flair” for mundane realism in the worlds he depicts. Shaun, played by total newcomer Thomas Turgoose, is highly convincing right up until the final shots, bringing back to mind all those moments that leave you cringing but secretly delighted (daring to swear at a parent, childish over-efforts to impress new friends, first drink, first smoke, first kiss) before turning the tables and showing a descent towards the kind of anti-social behaviour epitomised by the droogs in A Clockwork Orange – except here not all the participants have youthful inexperience to fall back on as an excuse.
The only problem is, This Is England ends up being exactly what you’d expect, so much so that it stops feeling distinctive and just becomes a fairly familiar treatise on anti-racism. Nothing wrong with that as such, but it took me writing this to feel there was anything significantly fresh about it. What makes it stand out is the general theme of The Family and seen through Shaun’s eyes the appeal of Combo, the need for someone strong to follow and believe in, is most convincing. The fact that there is really only one way for the story to go is a pity, but to Meadows’ credit it remains engrossing throughout.
My one unresolvable gripe is the final scene (well, maybe the final shot). From the moment the scene begins you know where it is going and it does, side-stepping at least one possible alternative that would have been to my mind more dramatic and original – but maybe this can also be laid at the feet of a childish protagonist, doing the symbolic thing because it is the most potent, even if it is a cliché. That final shot though, bleaugh. Breaks the wall, bursts the bubble, totally unnecessary, etc. etc. Moan, grumble.
Worth watching. The hell of Thatcherite Britain, so a conservative thumb up.