Ford On Film

Chronicles of a silver screen addict

Modern Masterpieces #2: This Is England

After his feature debut Twentyfourseven in 1997, Shane Meadows seemed destined to become the most underrated and underappreciated British director of his generation. Though his films are rich in period detail, unique characters, and naturalistic acting, Meadows spent the first half of his career struggling to break through.

1999’s A Room For Romeo Brass may have introduced the world to the blazing character acting of Paddy Considine (as well as regular collaborator Andrew Shim), but it never managed to find a real audience. Three years later, Meadows released gentle comedy drama Once Upon A Time in the Midlands. Despite a mainstream cast of British talents (including Rhys Ifans, Robert Carlyle and Shirley Henderson), Once Upon A Time in the Midlands never really came together, and once again failed to dent the box office. In 2004, Meadows rebounded with Dead Man’s Shoes, a blisteringly intense and intensely personal revenge film which featured, in Paddy Considine’s dangerous soldier Richard, one of the greatest British performances of the decade. Artistically successful it may have been, but the film’s mixed critical reviews and low box office takings were yet another disappointing result. Finally, in 2006, Meadows combined the joyous nostalgia of his early films with the powerful realism of Dead Man’s Shoes to create his critical, commercial, and personal masterpiece: This Is England.

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Set in the fallout of the Falklands War, This Is England focuses on 12 year old Shaun, played by Thomas Turgoose in an outstanding teenage performance.  Angry and confused over his Dad’s death in the war, Shaun is a fairly pleasant and cheeky lad with a huge amount of rage bubbling under the surface, as seen when he attacks another boy for joking about his Dad. Walking home from a lousy school day, he is heckled by a gang of young skinheads (he’s the only person left in the eighties still wearing flairs). Unlike every other person in Shaun’s life, however, the skinheads show compassion and apologise to him, none more so than gang leader Woody (Joseph Gilgun, infinitely lovable).

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Slowly, Shaun falls under their wing, becoming firm friends with overweight butt-of-the-jokes Gadget (Andrew Ellis), intense Pukey (BAFTA winner Jack O’Connell in his feature debut), and Milky (Shim), the only black member of the gang. The opening half hour of This is England is easily the most nostalgic and sentimental piece of film Shane Meadows has shot. Heavily based on his experience as a teenage skinhead, Meadows stages charming depictions of friendship and teenage mischief; smashing up abandoned houses, shooting each other with BB guns, and in the most touching moment, enlisting Woody’s girlfriend Lol (Vicky McClure, now a stalwart of British television) to shave Shaun’s head so he can finally be initiated into the gang for good. Soundtracked to feel good ska and reggae, the first half is so effective because it shows the true happiness of finding a group you fit in with, and contrasts wonderfully with the second half, a descent into the ugly side of skinhead culture.

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This Is England radically changes with the arrival of Woody’s old friend Combo. Before getting the role of Combo, Stephen Graham was mostly recognisable for bit parts in British television shows and supporting roles in Snatch and Gangs of New York. After This Is England, he became the go-to man for intense, volatile roles; Billy Bremner in The Damned United, Baby Face Nelson in Public Enemies, and, perhaps most recognisably, Al Capone in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. It’s hardly surprising, given that Graham’s performance as Combo is one of the most hateful, dangerous, and complex performances ever witnessed. Fresh out of prison, he’s a deeply disturbed man; furious at the wave of immigrants entering the country, disillusioned by the pointlessness of the Falklands war, and frustrated with an unrequited love for Lol. Combo is as unlikable a character as it gets, yet Graham portrays him with just the right amount of humanity, whether it’s the nervous nail biting as he talks to Lol or the way he quickly drops the motivational speaker act when he realises he’s pushed Shaun too far.

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In the film’s most famous scene, Combo rounds up the group and delivers a rousing speech (giving the film its title) in which he describes how England has been destroyed by Margaret Thatcher and generations of immigrants. The greatest scene Meadows has ever written, Combo’s speech is almost hypnotic in its rage and hatred; it’s not difficult to see why Shaun, Pukey and Gadget are brainwashed into staying with Combo, as Woody and Milky leave, enraged by Combo’s manipulative talk to the group (he uses Shaun’s Dad as an example of why Shaun needs to take a stand against immigrants). The film only gets darker from this point forward, as the group enlist in the National Front (Meadows regular Frank Harper has a terrific cameo as the spokesman of the NF) and take their violent campaign to the streets.

The second half of This Is England is a very difficult watch, on many levels. Multiple scenes show the racist attacks committed by Combo, Shaun and the rest of their group; Meadows shows the cowardice of the gang by portraying their victims as the weak and vulnerable. Three young boys are threatened at knife point, while the local Pakistani shopkeeper is verbally abused by Shaun, threatened with a machete by Combo, and then robbed by the rest of the gang. Stephen Graham’s performance only gets more disturbing and depraved as the film goes on. When Pukey questions the National Front manifesto (“Do you really believe all this shit?”), Combo pulls his car over, and it’s a terrifying unpredictable moment in which you believe Combo is capable of anything (he ends up slapping Pukey about and abandoning him in the middle of nowhere).

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Most of all, the second half of This Is England is a tough watch because of Shaun’s descent into the murky world of gang violence and racism. Shaun may be a bit cheeky and aggressive early on in the film, but we recognise him as a nice boy with a huge amount of inner rage and pain. The first half works so well because we witness the lonely, outcasted Shaun finally gain acceptance and friendship. When he verbally abuses the shopkeeper or practices attacking Pakistani immigrants in Combo’s flat (to great approval), it’s upsetting to see how easily lead astray Shaun has been, and just how much Combo has gotten inside his head. By the film’s climax, an unflinchingly brutal scene which brings Shaun back to reality, he’s lost all innocence, having seen the depths men are willing to go in their misguided attempts to ‘rescue’ their country. Shaun may achieve some form of redemption, but he ends the film as it began; outcast and disillusioned, with nowhere to turn to.

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Made on an impressively small £1 million budget, This Is England made £5 million at the box office, and went on to spawn two successful TV series (a third is in production), which further developed the characters in a genuinely interesting and relevant way, even if the fun nostalgia of the film’s first half was often left at the wayside to focus on the crushing reality of each character’s life (Lol, especially, had a rough time in the series). A critical and box office success, This Is England is quite clearly the greatest film of Meadows’ career to date, and he’ll probably struggle to ever top it. The acting is impeccable, especially from breakthrough performer Turgoose and a career best Stephen Graham, and the use of archive footage and music creates a wonderfully realistic portrayal of the decade.

More than anything else, the success of This Is England is down to the deeply personal and honest script from Meadows. It’s clear that Meadows based large sections of the film on his teenage years, and this works wonders for both halves of the film; Shaun and Woody’s friendship is a fond walk down memory lane and a tribute to some of Meadows’ best friends, while the second half is a devastatingly truthful look at how even the best of people can be influenced and manipulated by the figures in their life. An incredible writing and directorial effort, the film gave Meadows a well-deserved boost into the mainstream. Nearly ten years on, This Is England remains one of the best British films of all time.

By Harry J. Ford


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