Movie Review – This Is England (2007)
by HELEN GEIB
The latest work from British writer/director Shane Meadows (Dead Man’s Shoes, Once Upon A Time in the Midlands), This Is England revolves around a 12 year old boy who is drawn into a skinhead gang. It is a moving character drama, an evocative re-creation of depressed industrial England c. 1983 and a devastating critique of the British neo-fascist movement. This is a serious film, but never a gloomy one, and one of the best films I’ve seen this year.
As the school term ends, Shaun is lonely, the target of bullies and emotionally reeling from the recent death of his soldier father in the Falklands War. His mother is loving and concerned, but not able to give him the friendly companionship he craves. He begins to hang out with a group of older teens led by the charismatic Woody. They are kind to him and he becomes more outgoing and happier under their influence. He also adopts their style of dress and mannerisms of speech and behavior. That’s problematic because the older boys are skinheads.
It doesn’t seem like a serous problem at first. As Woody and his friends experience it, being a skinhead means being part of a youth counter-cultural movement with a uniform of outlandish clothing and hairstyles and engaging in familiar forms of youthful delinquency: smoking; drinking; and breaking windows in abandoned houses.
The problem comes with the arrival of an older man, Combo, fresh out of prison and preaching the anti-immigrant, racist and ultra-nationalist gospel of the neo-fascists. Woody’s group splinters as its weakest members, including Shaun, are seduced by Combo’s rhetoric. Combo and Shaun feel an immediate and genuine emotional connection and Combo becomes a surrogate father to the boy. The consequences of that connection are the heart of the story.
This Is England thoroughly demolishes the National Front, the political arm of the neo-fascist movement. First through the narrative, as Combo’s group acts on the party’s jingoist and xenophobic rhetoric about “taking back” England by scrawling misspelled anti-immigrant slogans on the wall of a convenience store and terrorizing the shopkeeper, and by holding a knife to the face of a boy about Shaun’s age. The sight of Shaun being tutored in the despicable cant of the National Front and encouraged to enjoy the spectacle of intimidation is intensely disturbing.
The film’s sophisticated symbolism is even more effective. Meadows creates explicit visual parallels between Woody’s group and Combo’s that initially suggest the former are children playing at being adults, but finally characterize the latter as adults living in a state of sustained and callous adolescence. Combo is the adult version of the playground bully whose cruel taunts about Shaun’s dead father opened the story.
If the film has a weakness, it is in offering up the facile explanation that a fascist is just a man who lacked a strong father figure growing up. That weakness is held to the level of a minor criticism by the movie’s dedicated focus on the particulars of its characters’ lives; that the explanation doesn’t hold true for all doesn’t mean it can’t hold true for them. Script, direction, and performances, especially the remarkably natural performance by the child actor playing Shaun, combine seamlessly to create a film that succeeds equally as a convincing character study and a powerful political statement.