At a small but fervid rally, like-minded citizens listen as a political organizer tells them what’s wrong with the country: the immigrants. Not the ones who work and pull their weight, the speaker says. It’s the ones who think they’re owed a living. The time has come to take back the country and send them packing. “We’re not racists,” the speaker argues, drawing hear-hears and huzzahs from an audience of mostly seething white guys. “We’re realists.”
Same rhetoric, different year: it’s 1983, the scary Others are Pakistanis, and the geezer giving the anti-immigrant spiel is planted in front of flyers for Britain’s mad-dog National Front. Watching with wide eyes is 12-year-old Shaun, son of a fallen soldier in the Falkland Islands, a boy who now has far worse things to face than schoolyard bullies. This Is England, the raw and wrenching new movie by writer-director Shane Meadows, tells how a lonely, basically gentle kid ends up in a room full of fascists—and why he doesn’t get up and leave.
In six features, starting with 1997’s scruffy boxing drama TwentyFourSeven, Meadows has staked out his home turf of the Midlands—the off-the-tourist-map midsection of England, land of sheep fields and factories and wheelhouse of the Industrial Revolution—as affectionately as John Waters’ Baltimore or Spike Lee’s Brooklyn. But for all their skill at sketching the comforts and conflicts of a roiling extended family, his previous movies often seemed like a mood (or rather a sense of community) in search of a conduit. For all his keenly felt details of makeshift camaraderie, he corralled them into goofy pseudo-genre plots that piffled off into irrelevance.
A harrowing study of a tweener punk’s progress toward brutal disillusionment, the autobiographical This Is England is a huge improvement. The title suggests a grand statement, perhaps too grand—a state-of-the-union message delivered through a bullhorn. But as the movie unfolds, it’s less a bellow than a shrug: these gray council houses, these skinhead friends…yeah, this is England. This is the hand I’ve been dealt. From the moment Shaun’s clock radio sounds, underneath his dead father’s military picture, the movie captures a kid’s scary, elating awakening to the world. And because it’s been written and directed so sympathetically—and because its young lead is so convincing—the sudden swerves of his journey feel like roller-coaster plunges.
Scrawny and pale, Shaun has the classic British complexion: skin that has felt cold wind but never sun. As played by Thomas Turgoose, in the kind of miraculous debut performance that haunts a child actor all his life, he’s small but fearless: when a snotty upperclassman ribs him about his dad, the kid launches himself like a missile into his taller foe. Yet his basic vulnerability shows through—enough that when Shaun sulks past a gang of loitering punks, their leader Woody (Joseph Gilgun) slows the boy down for a chat.
For the movie’s first half, anyone who recalls the thrill of being a kid and getting accepted by an older crowd will feel pangs of recognition. The gang inducts Shaun into its brotherhood: suddenly older girls in Boy George threads are standing around watching him get his head shaved, and he’s strutting among the crew in slow-motion solidarity. His ex-hippie mom (Jo Hartley) marches him down to the gang’s hangout, demands to know what right they had to cut his hair—then leaves him in their company. He’s getting his first soul kiss from a gangly older girl (Rosamund Hanson) when a knock comes at the gang’s crash pad. Surprise! It’s Woody’s old mate Combo (Stephen Graham), just out of jail and ready to take back over as leader. And that means getting a few things straight—such as whether brown-skinned Milky (Andrew Shim) is England First enough to stay.
Turgoose’s limited experience—he was reportedly booted from his school play for acting up—may be partly what makes him such a find. (He’d be ideally cast as the young Anthony Hopkins: with his head shaved, staring through cautiously slitted eyes, he looks like a garden-gnome Hannibal Lecter.) He reacts to things with a kid’s impulsiveness instead of a performer’s calculation; his cackling laugh has the spark of real surprise. In a movie that’s persuasively cast from top to bottom, he anchors the film as surely as the rough-hewn location shooting and the soundtrack of Two Tone-era reggae favorites.
But for all his sawed-off cockiness—whenever he takes a swing at somebody, you flinch for the other actor—something about Turgoose’s unguardedness makes your heart go out to him, and to Shaun. When Combo forces Shaun to choose between him and Woody, playing upon the boy’s need to honor his late dad, the young actor looks stricken to his soul. And so we feel doubly sick, moments later, when Shaun turns up beside Combo, listening eagerly to the National Front.
Turgoose and Graham, a pathetically human monster, are so nuanced in their scenes together—so needy and volatile in their mutual regard—that they overcome the problem-movie plotting. It reduces the roots of racism to the usual daddy issues and engineers a climax that’s predictably violent, if no less upsetting. If this were one of Alan Clarke’s etched-in-acid portraits of Thatcher-time England, Shaun might have been the little Hitler Combo wants without any patricidal prompting; the movie would have been an even more disquieting portrayal of the seductiveness of fascism.
That, however, might have meant losing the anguished perfection of Meadows’ ending—a reassertion of moral equilibrium in a single despairing gesture. It deliberately invokes the ending of another autobiographical study of juvenile hell-raising, The 400 Blows, from the seaside setting to the young hero’s what-next stare into the camera. I don’t know where Shaun or Thomas Turgoose can go from here—but I hope Shane Meadows means to follow them.
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