Tuesday, May 22, 2007

This Is England

Still from This is Englanddir Shane Meadows

A curiously unsatisfying film, despite its numerous assets. The story of a boy in an unspecified northern town in the summer of 1983 who falls under the spell of the local skinhead gang and its seriously anti-social leader, the film is apparently partly autobiographical for its writer-director Shane Meadows. Only he will know what is fact and fiction. And perhaps he is keeping his cards close to his chest regarding the absences, as well.

This is a film dripping with absences: the absent father; the absent family and community; the absent moral structure, etc. Into this void comes the lure of nationalism for young Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), who is bullied at school, not fitting into any of the existing style tribes. Falling in with a group of skins, he is adopted as something of a comic mascot, being far younger and more naive than the rest. He gets his first crop, his first Ben Sherman shirt, etc. and he thinks he has arrived. The group is a bit of a joke, really, donning silly costumes to go out "hunting", mindlessly trashing local empty flats. The perceived leader, Woody (Joseph Gilgun), is a nice enough bloke for someone with a cross tattooed on his forehead, and his girlfriend Lol (Vicky McClure) is a pleasant young lady, suitably chastened when Shaun's mum complains about his buzzcut.

However, a more threatening figure appears on the scene, with the arrival of hard nut Combo (Stephen Graham), just out of prison and fired up with nationalist agitprop, although his hard man image is rather undercut by his kiss on the lips for Woody. A pity this foray into homoeroticism wasn't developed. Anyway, Combo divides the group, siphoning off Shaun and a few others, while Woody and Lol withdraw in horror, along with Milky, the only black member.

Combo assumes the role of father figure to young Shaun, the latter having lost his father in the Falklands war, a conflict that Combo derides as pathetic, sending men needlessly to their deaths. This stance is interesting as the war has been widely interpreted as Britain flexing its muscles in the southern hemisphere, keen to hang on to the last vestiges of the empire. Combo's philosophy of nationalism and pride in England is one that is keen to stake out territory and drive out those who don't belong but it remains within England's borders. He takes his "troop" to a speech by a National Front leader and turns against anyone who questions it. Shaun doesn't. He is too much in thrall to being one of the gang. Then again he is 12.

This is one of the dramatic problems of the film. Shaun is largely given free rein because he is so young. Everyone looks out for him: his mother, Woody, Lol, Combo, even Kev, who is thrown out of the troop because he questions Combo's beliefs. Smell, the only female in the group besides Lol to be named, takes a shine to Shaun and becomes his girlfriend, despite several years age difference between them. She, too, looks out for him, in her own way. And I for one, found their romance rather icksome.

But Shaun is highly culpable, being an accessory to a robbery, incidents of intimidation and a savage beating, all with racist motivations. At no time is he called to account for his behaviour. Worse, his mother, who is given little to do in the film, appears utterly clueless as to what he is up to. Those who are old enough to know better don't.

The film promises much, but only partly delivers. All of the female characters appear underwritten. Lol, for instance, has some history with Combo, but what is set up as an intriguing conflict dissipates to nothing. She and Woody simply disappear from the film, as does the mother, until the latter pops up at the end to offer homilies. Milky's character is also hard to figure. What drives him to put himself in danger by going to Combo's house to smoke cannabis, knowing the latter's beliefs? It's a puzzling plot point. And what was with the numbers assigned to each actor in the opening credits? Never figured that out.

The Smiths cover used at the end offers some lyrical clues to the film's gaps: "the life I've had could make a good man turn bad". But that seems a glib copout.

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