by Nick Knight
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
"This Is England"
This isn't a sequel to writer-director (Lord) Shane Meadows' last film, "Dead Man's Shoes," but a pronounced similarity indicates a most important theme in the filmmaker's life. That film, a bleak tract on revenge, also involves a young boy accepted into a local gang in a grim, underbelly town in England. I find it interesting that at a time when another British director, Danny Boyle, is so determined to make films that don't even belong in the same genre, Meadows favors variations on a theme.
In a middle to lower class town in northern England in 1983, 12-year old Shaun Fields (Thomas Turgoose) is suffering the emotional effects of losing his beloved father in the Falklands War. If left alone, he may be despondent and withdrawn, but he seems to be the butt of too much bullying attention by older boys at school to be allowed that freedom. It's become such a pattern that he has developed a hair-trigger response of rage and flails away at his persecutor, however bigger and older the miscreant may be. Call it the coping mechanism of a grieving boy.
Walking home one day, he meets a small posse of guys whose leader, aware of his latest temper tantrum, invites him to join them for a few minutes. Treated with more respect than he's used to, Shaun joins them on a permanent basis and, when he's not out on a vandalizing forage, closely observes their thinking and their values, absorbing the aspects of his mature role models. He even hooks up with an older girl in the crowd who takes a romantic/sexual liking to him.
Allowing the audience to breath a sigh of relief in all this, it's apparent that this gang isn't as bad as one might fear, and its leader is smart, balanced and maintains a reasonable set of values, including protection of Shaun. A scene in which the gang sets out on a mission to destroy property and purge frustration, its target for vandalism turns out to be abandoned, probably waiting for the wrecking ball. Even Shaun's mom Cynthia (Jo Harley) allows him to hang out with this apparently harmless group. But the situation takes a turn for the worse when skinhead Combo (Stephen Graham), fresh out of the pen on a 3-year conviction, shows up with his entourage, tough and ready to take over.
A true skinhead, Shaun is fascinated by the takeover speeches and charismatic presence of the ex-con, too young to weigh the significances and subleties of an adult world. When combo begins to suggest disrespect to soldiers who fought in Margaret Thatcher's war, and to disparage Shaun's father for having a hand in it, Shaun has no fear or compunction about attacking the older strong man as he does with any bully on his case.
Swinging arms and fists flail away at the skinhead who takes it laughing, seeing himself in the lad's fearless instinct. Shaun, thusly regarded through the prism of a psychopath's system of value, willingly becomes Combo's ward, a student in the ways of bigotry and intolerance. When Combo outfits Shaun in bright shirt, suspenders and proper trousers, the new look evokes universal praise and sends Shaun into a rush of vanity and pride -- feelings he hasn't experienced much in his short life. He soaks up the attention and wears the outfit every day. One wonders if mom got out the washer and ironing board every night.
As one might guess from this Turgoose, 14 when he made it, is strong in his debut role, totally made for it and it for him. He carries the movie with a convincing range of feelings that are solid in consistency and development. With bad boy conviction and feisty demeanor, he shows us sharply responsive nerves bared to the erratic side of reactive behavior. Keep this up and Turgoose will earn a lordship in company with his director.
In a superbly well chosen cast that is entirely unknown to American audiences, Graham's tension-producing fearlessness is a virtue of the film. I don't know if he was trying to emulate Vin Diesel but if that was his plan, he succeeded bravely. His screen presence is palpable, making the boy's fascination with him and the group's fear of him plausible.
Besides his star's performance, Meadows enriches his study of prevailing social issues in his country by setting into conflict two rival gangs that differ in the degree of danger they pose to their community and to the law. With an ending that is startling and difficult to watch, with a dark story that's not without its moments of irony and humor, this is worthy of a good turnout at the art houses that will run it, luv.
~~ Jules Brenner