This is England
Proclaimed in The Times as “The best British film since Trainspotting”, Shane Meadows (partially) autobiographical masterpiece This is England actually generates enough cinematic force to stand up to such lofty praise. Set against a backdrop of political turmoil in 1980s Thatcherite England, Meadows’ film tracks the story of 12 year old Shaun as he negotiates his journey to manhood in a world of working class poverty, social upheaval, and racial tension. Having recently lost his father in the Falkland’s war and subsequently moved to a new area Shaun is facing alienation and bullying at school when, out of the blue, he is ‘adopted’ by a group of older local skinhead youths. Initially Shaun finds the acceptance and caring community he lacks in this unlikely bunch, as well as a surrogate father figure in Woody, the gang’s leader. The return from prison of older alpha male – and Woody’s one time friend – Combo, changes the dynamic of the group which quickly fractures over ideological differences. During his 3.5 year stint in prison Combo has fused his skinhead culture with the less accepting and more extremist/racist philosophies of the National Front. His charismatic, if somewhat skewed logic draws in about half the group including an impressionable Shaun who finds in Combo a stronger father figure to whom he can turn. As the story unfolds we see friendships falter, idealism crumble and the cycle of violence and loss perpetuated.
Through a relatively straightforward narrative writer/director Shane Meadows manages to plumb the deeper longings of humanity in this haunting example of social realist cinema. Bringing together of a pitch perfect cast with a well written screenplay, an evocative soundtrack and totally believable period setting the filmmaker achieves a synergy which makes this his most accomplished film to date.
The principal leads – young Shaun (non-actor Thomas Turgoose) and his father figure Combo (a scarily intense Stephen Graham) – deliver truly magnetic performances that draw you right into the story. You feel the longing, fear, frustration, and hurt as if you were part of their gang. Meadows purposefully draws upon little known, or unknown talents (including many first time actors like Thomas Turgoose) to create a group that feels authentic and achieves the sense of a tight-knit group of long-time friends without the usual celebrity factor interfering. The production designers’ and wardrobe/makeup crews’ attention to detail helped to fashion these very real bonds between the young actors. Several cast members commented in interviews that having their hair cut and being in the skinhead outfits brought about an instant change and sense of connection to the others, and this is palpable onscreen. Alongside these factors, the director’s impeccable selection of period music, with one or two minor exceptions, sets just the right tone; invoking the transience and joyful melancholy of youth.
Many of the characters and experiences in This is England come directly from Meadows’ experience as a young lad taken under the wing of an older skinhead guy. Much of the authenticity in the film’s detailing– from tattoo designs to the non-standard cinematic skinhead social mix – stems from his particular knowledge and experience. The director wanted to make a film about skinheads that showed the fuller picture of the movement outside of the typical neo-Nazi, Romper Stomper style representations we’ve been used to seeing. And even though the context is so distinctively working class British (and Northern English at that) the director successfully opens up themes of human imperfection, our innate need for community, and the true ugliness of violence – themes common to viewers from all walks of life – in a way which transcends the film’s setting. That such an idiomatically working class English picture can find a strong resonance in audiences around the world is the mark of truly superior cinema. Shane Meadows seems, to me, to be growing into a true stalwart of the British social realist film tradition; taking the baton from such masters as Ken Loach (My Name is Joe, Sweet Sixteen, The Wind that Shakes the Barley) and Mike Leigh (High Hopes, Secrets & Lies, All or Nothing). Meadows arguably possesses a slightly more empathetic touch than Leigh, and perhaps works on more of a micro thematic scale than either of his predecessors. Whatever the case, he is one of the freshest and most distinctive talents in English cinema today and This is England is a must see work from his burgeoning filmography.
This release has a manageable selection of features which each add to the value of the overall package. The Guardian interview with Shane Meadows is particularly interesting and fleshes out much of the filmmaker’s background and journey into cinema and also includes self commentary on his filmmaking practice and philosophy. The other interviews play more like a split up ‘making of’ and as such are of interest also.
You get a very real sense of the cast and crew’s commitment to each other over and above the experience of making the film. The single commentary track is the kind where the three involved (writer/director, producer, and lead actor) are actually watching the film and commenting on the various parts as it plays, as opposed to a disassociated interview audio track dropped over the top of the regular audio. The three guys gel together very well and you get the sense that they are actually enjoying the process rather than simply fulfilling the requirements of a DVD release. Comments are uniformly intelligent, enlightening and interesting.
The behind the scenes pieces include some parts which underscore the actors’ commitment to their roles – particularly Stephen Graham’s intensity which occasions moments of real fear in several of the other cast members. The making of the climactic scene is quite disturbing to watch but does highlight the awfulness of physical violence and intimidation, and the complex mix of self-loathing which is commonly found in the perpetrator. Another moment that sticks out from these behind the scenes pieces is Stephen Graham (who has a mixed race heritage) and Kriss Dosanjh (who plays Pakistani dairy owner Mr Sandhu) coaching young Thomas Turgoose through a difficult scene where Shaun has to shout angry racist slurs at Mr Sandhu. He can’t bring himself to do it at first but they reassure him that it is alright and explain that, although it is awful, it is a good thing for this film to be portraying some of the less attractive sides of human nature so that we can look into that cinematic mirror and see the ugliness of our own prejudices reflected back at us. Powerful stuff seeing a young boy work through issues like these in a film, and it can’t help but prompt similar responses in the viewer – which can only be a good thing. Shane Meadows actually comments in his interview that he was a little saddened that the film got an R18 rating in the UK as the violence is in small doses and shows the destructiveness of the actions rather than glorying in it like hyper unreal action films in the vein of 300 do whilst attaining lesser ratings.
Overall, this is an interesting and informative set of special features which should make most DVD hounds happy.
DVD Info + Special Features
» Region 4 PAL
» Anamorphic Widescreen 16:9
» Dolby Digital 5.1
» Languages: English 5.1, English 2.0
» Optional subtitles: English
» 2-disc Edition
» Commentary with Shane Meadows (Writer/Director), Mark Herbert (Producer), & Thomas Turgoose (Protagonist – Shaun)
– Hair & Makeup dept
– Design dept
» Behind the Scenes: including rehearsals and auditions
» Deleted Scenes
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell.
Rating: R16 – Contains violence, offensive language and drug use
Duration: 98 mins
Genre: Drama / English social realism
Director: Shane Meadows (2007)
Actors: Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Andrew Shim, Joe Gilgun.
Release Date: 20 March 2008.