The experience of a Shane Meadows film is a bit like a night out on the town. It begins harmlessly enough, full of laughs, fun and frolics, but then suddenly you realise that you have overstepped the mark and, at the end of it, you are left with a mixed taste in your mouth – sweet and nasty at the same time. ‘This Is England’ (2006) is no different.
Set during 1983, it tells the story of Shaun Fields (Thomas Turgoose), an adolescent who has recently lost his father in the Falklands war. Seemingly alone, he is embraced by a local group of skinheads – but only after they shave his hair off and don him in a Ben Sherman shirt and the quintessential Doc Martens.
In true Meadows fashion, the safety of this world soon collapses with the entrance of Combo (Stephen Graham). A man not only bitter, having just left prison, but also an advocate of the impending National Front; seizing his opportunity, he embroils Shaun in to his ultimately destructive hate campaign.
Without a doubt this is Meadows finest work to date, perhaps owing to his increased reliance on autobiographical experiences. For a man who, after failing to complete his O levels, went on to begin a brief stint in the criminal underworld, this comes as little surprise. Indeed it is this, what he describes as, ‘stick to what you know’, attitude that makes Meadows work more realistic, engaging the viewer more intensely. This is enhanced by the sense that England is currently going through a similar period – certainly the war in Iraq echoes that of the Falklands. Still, this is only implied as Meadows focuses his attention on the young protagonist and his own maturation from innocence to experience.
Indeed, Meadows avoids imparting any opinion on to the viewer. Certainly there is a protective nature for the ‘good’ skinheads, such as Woody (Joseph Gilgun) and Milky (Andrew Shim), yet the audience is never allowed to feel complete abhorrence toward Combo. A scene in which he presents a gift to Lol (Vicky McClure) leaves the viewer with the awareness that he is human, vulnerable to emotions, and liable to making mistakes affected by his past – an uninvolved father is hinted at.
‘This Is England’ will no doubt leave its audience drained of emotion. After starting with nostalgic hilarity, with a cracking soundtrack, it jabs at the stomach of British culture during the 1980s (legwarmers, curly perms and Roland Rat), which in an instant twists in to brutality before its more poignant ending. To a Meadows aficionado this will come as a great relief, that he continues to stick to a tried and tested philosophy, albeit with a slight blip with the more commercial turn of ‘Once Upon A Time In The Midlands’ (2002).
One hopes that this will finally secure Meadows rightful place as a master of his craft, as ‘This Is England’ makes the statement that this is British filmmaking, something we can finally be proud.
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.