Twelve-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is not having a good day. It is the last day of term at school, and the pupils don't have to wear uniform, but this means that the boy is resplendent in his old flares, which in 1983 is a big fashion faux pas. Not only does he get mocked by the other kids, but he is banned from the local shop where he buys his sweets, and to top it all he gets into a fight when someone makes a joke about his father who was killed in the previous year's Falklands conflict. So when a bunch of skinheads confront him in an underpass, he expects more sorrow - but these skinheads are pretty decent guys.
Shane Meadows received some of the best reviews of career with this loss of innocence tale set in the early eighties, reflecting his own experiences at the time (note the similarity between his name and the main character's). He took a more socially involved tone to this work than he had before, as if he had something to say about the state of the nation in 1983 and how it reflected on 2006, as if it were a turning point in British culture. The film begins with some nostalgia-baiting, mixing Roland Rat and Rubik's Cubes with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the footage of the war in the Falkland Islands, but Meadows is willing to dig deeper than simply recreating memory-joggers.
Those skinheads Shaun meets are a reminder that many of them have received a bad press over the years, as while they have their boisterous side they are amiable and concerned that the boy is having a bad time of it. They end up befriending him and he becomes a kind of mascot for them, complete with boots, braces and shaven head. For the first half hour, This Is England could easily operate as a comedy, with Meadows' trademark skill with banter and working class relationships well to the fore; they may kid around with each other, but these people are loyal and upstanding.
Or they are until Combo (Stephen Graham) is released from prison. Then the atmosphere turns sinister, as he is the type of skinhead who does their reputation no good at all. Interestingly, Meadows does not favour painting these characters in broad strokes, so no one is entirely bad here and we can understand - eventually - what has made Combo tread the path he has chosen. He invades a gathering of Shaun's new friends and starts regaling them with a racist anecdote even though one of those present, Milky (Andrew Shim), is black.
It is Combo's allegiance to the National Front and its anti-immigration policies that drives a wedge between the gang, with some opting to join him, while others stay with the far more reasonable Woody (Joseph Gilgun). It is to the director's credit that every actor in the film is never less than one hundred percent convincing, which makes for uncomfortable viewing as the story draws on and Combo's menacing nature grows clearer. Still, as the naive Shaun joins with him after he appeals to the boy over his father's death, we can see why Combo has become the man he has thanks to scenes which make the tragic ending something of an inevitability. If This Is England is too predictable, it does at least feel authentic from a filmmaker who suggests that while there are no easy answers to social problems, we should not encourage those who wish to embrace victimisation as a solution and blame; if anything, he suggests racism is a form of mental illness, clouding the mind. Music by Ludovico Einaudi.
British writer/director who graduated from two acclaimed short films into his own brand of features, set in ordinary British locations and concentrating on the humour and drama of everyday life: Twenty Four Seven, A Room for Romeo Brass and Once Upon a Time in the Midlands. 2004's Dead Man's Shoes was a change of direction, a rural revenge thriller that got some of his best reviews until the autobiographical This is England became regarded as his finest work, which he sequelised starting in 2010 for a television series.