This Is England (United Kingdom, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

This Is England, the semi-autobiographical tale of writer/director Shaun Meadows, turns back the clock a quarter century and looks at the slow progression of a boy from a lonely outsider to a member of a racist gang. Despite a somewhat rushed ending, the movie does an excellent job not only illustrating how easily hatred can be fostered in the young but chronicling the transformation of skinheads from a reggae-loving nationalistic cult to the military arm of neo-Nazi groups.

The year is 1983. The Falklands War is raging, unemployment in England is high, and there is growing resentment in some quarters of the high rate of Pakistani immigration. Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is a 12-year-old loner in Yorkshire whose father was recently killed in the war. He has no friends. He is bullied at school. And his mother, Cynthia (Jo Hartley), worries about him. One day, on the way home from school, Thomas encounters a group of older skinheads, led by the affable Woody (Joseph Gilgun). Woody, sympathetic to Shaun's troubles, "adopts" the boy into the gang. For a while, everything is wonderful. Shaun finally understands what it means to belong. The skinheads can be raucous but they're essentially good natured. And Shaun starts to date a much older girl, Smell (Rosamund Hanson). Everything changes with the arrival of Combo (Stephen Graham), a hard-core racist and member of the National Front who is recently out of prison. Combo takes over the gang with the intent of turning it to darker deeds. Woody and many of the others opt out at this point, but Shaun remains. He bonds with Combo and the results are what one might expect when an impressionable boy connects with a hate-monger.

Because he lived through something similar, Meadows has an understanding of how a friendless, emotionally isolated boy will react in circumstances like these. With his father gone and his mother at a loss how to relate to him, Shaun craves any kind of connection. When the skinheads provide it, he is easy prey. At first, there's nothing sinister about them. They, like him, are outsiders looking to belong. Combo is the snake in the garden. He is charismatic and persuasive and, while older members of the gang like Woody and his girlfriend, Lol (Vicky McClure), are able to distance themselves from him, Shaun is too easily influenced. He's a blank slate upon which Combo can inscribe his hateful rants. There's a universal message to be found here - one that provides understanding of how shy, quiet individuals can be transformed, seemingly overnight, into monsters. This Is England may be set in 1983 but it's as relevant today as it was then.

Over the past two decades, the term "skinhead" has become synonymous with "neo-Nazi" and "racist." It's instructive to understand that it wasn't always like that and to be provided with a quick, non-didactic primer of how these youths were co-opted by the National Front political organization. Meadows provides this in This Is England, while never losing sight of the young protagonist at the center of his drama. There are times when the filmmaking style and the story itself are reminiscent of something from Ken Loach, although the ending (the scenes after an act of gross brutality) is a little to facile for the kind of frankness favored by Loach.

There are two standout performances. The first is from neophyte actor Thomas Turgoose, whose raw energy and pugnacious attitude are perfect for Shaun. Turgoose's acting is flawless - there's never a moment's doubt that he inhabits the character. They are fused. There are none of those awkward moments that sometimes accompany young portrayals when it's obvious the individual is acting. Equally strong is Stephen Graham as the demented, charismatic Combo. Graham conveys both critical aspects of his character: the magnetism and the hatred. Combo is more than a heartless, thuggish villain, and that understanding is what makes Graham's portrayal so forceful.

This Is England is not as graphic as it could be, but there is still a scene that could disturb some viewers. The film's biggest failings come near the end and are easily forgiven in light of how compelling the rest of the picture is. To leaven the production, Meadows includes moments of humor (such as Shaun's clinch with Smell) and joy (Shaun's early days with the skinheads, before Combo's arrival). He's also careful to limit the racist rhetoric while providing an understanding of some of the reasons underlying the hatred that bubbles to the surface. In addition to telling an involving story, This Is England is insightful and informative.

This Is England (United Kingdom, 2006)

Director: Shane Meadows
Cast: Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Jo Hartley, Andrew Shim, Vicky McClure, Joseph Gilgun, Rosamund Hanson
Screenplay: Shane Meadows
Cinematography: Danny Cohen
Music: Ludovico Einaudiv
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films
Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2006-08-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1