Director Shane Meadow’s stock has been rising consistently since his debut feature, the gritty boxing drama Twenty Four Seven. His brand of low-budget British naturalism has already seen him likened to Ken Loach, however, with This Is England, his first foray into his country’s murky past, he looks set to deservedly stamp his own mark on the UK film industry.
Set in the long, hot summer of 1983, just as the final bodybags werebeing flown back from the Falklands war, This is England is a loosely autobiographical coming-of-age tale tackling ideas of race, poverty, identity and nationalism. It is a passionate, beautiful and at times hugely shocking piece of work, both intensely personal and deliberately commercial, and may very well be the most important British film released this year.
On an Oldham council estate, 12-year-old Shaun suffers at the hands of the local bullies, mostly due to his well meaning but gawky mother. After meeting and charming a group of amiable local skinheads, he falls in with the gang and develops a close bond with their leader, the affable Woody. However, when right-wing nut Combo is released from prison, he returns to take over the group, and the impressionable Shaun begins to slip into a queasy love affair with the British National Party, with tragic consequences.
Meadow’s film, which has ludicrously been given an 18 certificate for racist language, is a must-see. Immediately, he challenges the prejudices of the time and makes them seem contemporary, never making any apologies or answers for the actions of the characters. The skinheads here are not the stereotypical jack-booted racists we’ve come to expect – some of the most touching scenes in the film are Shauns first faltering steps into friendship with the gang, who dress him in Ben Sherman shirts and take him to parties.
The nationalistic angle too is sensitively handled. These aren’t just evil thugs, there is method in their madness, despite it seeming repellant to our eyes. While Meadows obviously looks back with nostalgia to the times, he effortlessly turns what could have been a misty-eyed Billy Elliot-alike into something much darker at the drop of a hat. His affectionate snapshot of inner-city life, authentic down to the last Doc Martin shoelace, switches pace with sickening speed to almost unbearable tension at times – the moment Combo appears at a party and spots the only black member of the gang is so uncomfortable you can barely watch.
The performances here, from a mixture of amateurs and professionalactors are uniformly excellent. Meadows has already shown an astonishing talent for drawing out excellent performances from children in the tender A Room For Romeo Brass, and he turns up another diamond here in 15 year old Thomas Turgoose, who plays Shaun. From his awkward beginnings wearing “fooking rubbish” trousers to school to his terrifyingly innocent stumble into neo-Nazism, Turgoose is an astonishingly natural performer, who deservedly picked up a best newcomer award at the British Independent Film Awards. Similarly, Snatch actor Stephen Graham turns in the kind of visceral, stomach-churning performance that careers are made of – he infuses Combo with just the right amount of humanity, especially in a finely nuanced scene with a former girlfriend, that perhaps makes him even more terrifying to watch than some cardboard cut-out bad guy.
If it has a failing, it is that followers of Meadow’s career will not see a marked difference in tone and style from his previous features. Despite it being set in the early 1980s, This is England is similar tonally to his second feature, A Room For Romeo Brass, where a dangerous and violent stranger comes between two friends. However, it is still one of the best releases of the year so far from a British director. Unmissable.