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This Is England   B+

IFC First Take / Warp Films

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Shane Meadows
Writer: Shane Meadows
Cast: Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Jo Hartley, Andrew Shim, Vicky McClure, Joe Gilgun, Rosamund Hanson, Andrew Ellis.

Review by Rob Vaux

It's one thing to say that This Is England is the most compassionate movie of the year. It's another to make that claim when the subject matter is a gang of violent skinheads. But director Shane Meadows pulls deep into the trauma of his own past to produce a sympathetic, deeply human view of figures whose usual cinematic function is to get thrashed by Chuck Norris. Even more miraculously, he does so without once condoning his subjects' behavior, soft-pedaling their crimes, or presenting their agenda as anything other than reprehensible. Few filmmakers can aspire to such exquisite balance; Meadows does it because he knows this story from the inside out. Having come of age in working-class Britain during Margaret Thatcher's reign, he has seen life through his protagonists' eyes, and knows exactly how to convey the pain of their journey.

Thatcher remains a constant storm cloud brooding over This Is England. Television footage of her triumph in the Falklands periodically intrudes upon the action, looking as far away as the surface of Mars. Meadows subtly mixes shots of victorious British soldiers with images of battlefield wounds and corpses in body bags -- evidence that even glorious little wars have permanent consequences. No one understands that better than 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), whose father died in the conflict and now exists as little more than a battered picture in a threadbare bedroom. Thatcher makes an easy (if frustratingly unreachable) source for all the woes in his world. His hometown is in the grip of economic stagnation, rapidly crumbling into a wasteland of abandoned buildings and hollow-eyed citizens. Among the patchwork subcultures rising to fill that void are the skinheads: youthful remnants of punk iconoclasm, now raging against the nihilism of their surroundings.

And ironically, they're the only people who don't seem to hate Shaun on sight. The gang's initial leader Woody (Joe Gilgun) knows a kindred misfit when he sees one, and reaches out with a warmth Shaun has rarely experienced. Though he and his mates engage in destructive behavior like trashing an abandoned block of flats, they have no especial creed of bigotry. Their neo-Fascist dress clashes with other parts of their style -- like an affection for reggae music, or the fact that one of their number (Andrew Shim) has Jamaican roots. They even show respect for Shaun's mother (Jo Hartley), who frets over her boy's future with a surprising amount of parental responsibility. Though they're all traveling down the shopworn path of adolescent angst, This Is England gives them an authenticity that defies typical clichés. Turgoose helps by delivering a poised and winning performance, at once both maturely self-confident and utterly lost.

Things take a much darker turn with the appearance of Combo (Stephen Graham), one of Woody's former mates, who did prison time for a felony they both committed and has emerged full of hate for any convenient target. He redirects the gang towards the nascent National Front -- far right-wingers with a penchant for violence and a distressingly familiar way of pointing the finger at dark-skinned folks. The more moderate members of the gang detach themselves posthaste, but Shaun stubbornly remains: intoxicated by Combo's charisma and the twisted message of empowerment which he has waited so eagerly to hear.

Meadows never quite shakes the coming-of-age pastiche of his tale, complete with light and dark mentors and an awkward stab at sexual awakening. But he knows these figures so well and invests them with such painful reality that their cardboard foundations become all but invisible. This is clearest with Combo -- a true monster in many ways, but one whose pain and confusion echo as powerfully as his rage. He lashes out at the impersonal forces that have shaped him, making foolish and violent choices while trying to understand how things could have gone so wrong. Racism offers easy scapegoats, but no real solutions, a fact that ironically accentuates the very powerlessness which led him to such extremes in the first place. Shaun trifles dangerously with the same emotional powder keg, though his youth has thus far spared him the hard knocks that Combo struggles vainly to outrun. The film's most ominous thread leaves us speculating how much longer he'll be able to hold out.

This Is England drenches itself in the unique atmosphere of their lives -- from the slang to the music to the desperate future that they would do anything to avoid -- but also renders the experience universal to anyone who ever felt young and hopeless. We can see ourselves in Shaun's anger, but also in the camaraderie he finds and in the ways his spirit is tempered by good and bad alike. As a snapshot of a bygone era, the film thunders with hard-won conviction. As a meditation on what it is to a be teenager in an uncaring world, it climbs even higher. Meadows strengthens his autobiographical chords by refusing to get lost in them, delivering the experience whole for all of us to understand and share. We've heard these lessons before, but never from such a truthful voice... and rarely with such searing, heartfelt sincerity.

Review published 08.12.2007.

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