This is England
English Title: This is England
Country of Origin: Britain
Studio: Warp Films, Big Arty Productions, Film4/Optimum Releasing
Director: Shane Meadows
Screenplay: Shane Meadows
Cinematographer: Danny Cohen
Editor: Chris Wyatt
Runtime: 101 minutes
Genre: Social Realism
Summer, 1983. Twelve-year-old Shaun is lonely and grieving for his father who has been killed in the Falklands. When he meets a friendly local skinhead gang headed by Woody, Shaun is taken under their wing – he has his head shaved, gets a skinhead uniform, goes to parties and forms a relationship with an older Goth girl called Smell. All seems well until Combo – an intimidating, older skinhead with extreme political beliefs – is released from prison. Combo becomes a father figure to Shaun, but his return forces an abrupt split within the group, and Shaun’s loyalties are torn.
With British military personnel occupying Iraq and Afghanistan and a resurgence of neo-fascist politics in Britain, This is England’s release in 2006 could hardly have been more timely, being a film about nationalism and the insidious promises of racist ideology set against the backdrop of a politically-divisive war. Meadows’ resonant period piece takes an ambivalent but emotionally powerful look at the ideological and cultural schisms of the Thatcherite 1980s. This is England is an unsettling mixture of nostalgia and melancholy for an era which functions as the social and political primal scene of contemporary Britain; appropriately, a strong sense of irresolution marks out the film’s interrogation of the cyclical relationship between socio-economic disenfranchisement and political extremism. The contradictions of the period are showcased in an impressionistic opening montage. Bleak footage from the Falklands war and images of miners in violent clashes with riot police sit uneasily alongside snapshots of Duran Duran, Knight Rider and skinhead subculture. This discord sets the tone for the film, measuring as it does the rise of neo-liberal consensus against the fraught political conflict of the period. 'In 1983', Meadows wrote, 'people still cared about society as a whole but now they’ll keep their mouth shut as long as they’ve got the house, the job and the car they want' (Meadows 2007). Ultimately, This is England returns to one of Meadows’ favourite themes: the demise of social idealism.
Although widely interpreted as the director’s first candidly political film, This is England is rarely didactic. The film opens with Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) symbolically ‘waking up’ to Thatcher’s aggressive dogma broadcast on the radio, but the narrative itself is largely structured around two contrasting skinhead gangs. The steady decline of the Left in the 1980s is mapped across the semiotic guerrilla warfare of subcultural practice – the skinheads articulate class solidarity through DIY expressive forms such as graffiti and the skinhead uniform of workers clothes – donkey jackets, braces, denims, Dr Marten’s boots, etc. This is England challenges the principle that skinhead culture is straightforwardly nationalist by showing the degradation of a progressive subculture rooted in Mod, Ska and two-tone harmonies to a thuggish extremism soundtracked by livid post-punk discord. In contrast to the grim isolationism of skinhead Combo (Stephen Graham) and the National Front supporters, the film celebrates the inclusive and pro-social skinhead collective headed by Woody (Joe Gilgun). Woody’s gang, for example, inhabits democratic and municipal spaces: suburban streets, subway tunnels and swimming baths, whereas Combo’s gang lurks in the shadows of grotty pubs and remote nationalist rallies. An expedition to vandalize disused council homes is the most joyous sequence in the film as Woody and the gang’s gleeful rejection of dominant social and political values is undercut by the unselfconscious poignancy of their actions.
From the prominent ‘Skrewdriver’ graffiti to the multicultural sounds of Toots and the Maytals on the soundtrack, This is England insistently foregrounds the political battleground of 1980s’ popular and sub-cultures. The final scene is scored by a suitably downbeat cover of ‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want’ by The Smiths, whose lead singer Morrissey embodies many of the film's key themes. Himself a second-generation Irish immigrant, Morrissey’s flirtations with right-wing imagery, political sideswipes at Thatcherism, dubious comments on race and immigration, ambivalent celebration of ‘Englishness’, and repeated questioning of traditional forms of masculinity, make him a significantly incoherent figure who echoes the film’s political and emotional contradictions. As Shaun silently stands on the shoreline at the very edge of England, gazing back at the audience, Turgoose’s doleful eyes are both plaintive and accusatory.
Author of this review: Martin Fradley
Peer reviewer: Martin Fradley