Review of “This is England”

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This is England is a film about skinheads in the English Midlands in the early 1980s, written and directed by the British director Shane Meadows (interviewed here) and set mostly on a council estate which turns out to be in Nottingham, although no reference to Nottingham is actually made anywhere in the film; some scenes are shot in Grimsby, an east coast port and seaside resort. It mainly revolves around the character of Shaun, a 12-year-old boy who has recently lost his father in the Falklands war, and who is partly based on Meadows (and some of the other characters are also partly based on people Meadows knew). (More: Crooked Timber, BBC Movies, Future Movies, Pickled Politics.)

The story starts with Shaun waking up for school, stopping to read the comic in the local Asian-owned shop and getting thrown out by the shopkeeper. At school he is taunted for his second-hand flared trousers, and starts a fight with an older boy who taunts him about his dad’s death. On the way home, he falls in with a group of skinheads, led by “Woody” (Joe Gilgun), whose overtures he originally resists because he expects them to pick on him. The gang are basically delinquents whose idea of fun includes smashing up empty council houses, but are not racists, the soundtrack to their escapades (although they are not shown playing any) being ska and and one of their members, known as “Milky”, being black, and their “leader” is a guy everyone calls Woody (Joe Gilgun), who expects everyone to play fair and slaps down one member who tries to pick on Shaun.

It all goes pear-shaped when one of their old mates, “Combo” (Stephen Graham), turns up in the middle of the night having been released from jail; we’re not told what for. Combo is a big, burly bloke and sends an even burlier buddy ahead of him to give the gang a fright before making his entrance. To cut a long story short, he turns out to be a racist psychopath, although he tries to pretend that he doesn’t mind “decent” people coming to be part of his great nation, only all those people coming to freeload. When he calls one of the prison bullies, who kept seizing his pudding, a wog in front of “Milky”, he profusely apologises, but soon expects him to declare whether he’s English or Jamaican (because, of course, you’d have to be Jamaican if you’re black, don’t you?). He gives the gang a spiel inviting them to join his “fight”, at which Woody declares that he’s being brainwashed and leads several of the gang, including Milky but not Shaun, out. Combo had first upset Shaun with his remarks about the men who died in the Falklands, resulting in Shaun attacking him, but then praised him for sticking up for his dad. As another reviewer noted, he saw in Shaun a younger and purer version of himself.

After this, we see little of Woody, but Combo displays more and more violence. He takes Shaun and the others to a National Front rally in some pub in the middle of nowhere, at which some thug in a suit told the men (and they were all men) present that they were not Nazis or racists, but nationalists, and how much he loved England. On the way home, one of the boys, after Combo pressed him to tell him what was on his mind, asked Combo, “do you really believe all that sh*t?”, at which point Combo slammed on the breaks, stormed round the back of the car and dragged the offender out, pinned him to the side of the car and apparently grabbed his nuts, bellowed at him and then told him to get off back to Woody, before leaving him in the middle of nowhere. The gang also rob a group of young Asian boys of their football, racially abusing them and telling them to get off back home because Mummy’s cooking them some curry. The gang then rob the corner shop that chucked Shaun out for reading the comic without asking at the beginning, before taking their loot round to have a party with Woody and the others. Woody and a couple of others leave as soon as they arrive, however, ostensibly so they can get home and watch a documentary about aardvarks.

Combo is a highly unpleasant character, a violent man with a hair-trigger temper who is also highly manipulative. He uses others’ fear of him as well as a twisted version of the gang’s existing honour code. He publically humiliates Woody, for example, for not sticking up for “Milky” when he first used the word “wog” in front of him, but at that point, when Woody and “Milky” had been friends for ages, no intervention from Woody was necessary. He later accosts an ex-girlfriend he had had before he went to jail, and shows her a box he had made for her while in jail; she rejects him, however, telling him that the night they spent together was the worst of her life and that she had wanted to forget about it. This takes the wind out of him and sets him banging his head against the window. He then comes across Milky, walking home with his (white) girlfriend, and manages to split them up and get Milky to get some weed and come to his place. The two have a “heart to heart” to the soundtrack of Percy Sledge singing “The Dark End of the Street”, but when Milky tells him about his wonderful family and how he loves his dad, he can’t take it and ends up beating him to a pulp.

This is England contains numerous violent scenes, with an awful lot of swearing. There has been some controversy over its 18 certificate, with Meadows himself writing this Guardian blog piece protesting about it. He claims that the film contains “one piece of violence and one piece of really acute verbal violence”, but there are other disturbing scenes of violence and an atmosphere of violence for most of the film. Once it comes out on DVD, no doubt a few teenagers will be able to see it when adults get it for them, but I fail to see why they are the people who most need to see this film, because there is so much that will be lost on them. Most people under 35, never mind 18, do not know much about the early skinheads, or that they listened to ska and reggae and were not racist; when people think of skinheads now, they think of racist thugs. The film is about a bygone era and a party which was in terminal decline then and which today is a tiny rump, most of whose activists have formed the British National Party - not to say that they aren’t a threat, but they are not the same kind of threat they were in the early 1980s.

There are also continuity issues with this film. The impression given by the opening credits is that the film is set in Yorkshire, but the film itself does not mention where the action takes place other than on a council estate somewhere in the north or the Midlands (and I’m no expert in regional accents). The credits at the end say that the film is set on location in Nottingham and Grimsby, but the film often cuts from the housing estate to isolated seaside scenes without showing how a 12-year-old boy got from one to the other. The impression was that they were nearby, but there is, of course, no sea anywhere near Nottingham, or any of the small cities of that part of England (except Hull, which is on an estuary). This detracts from the film’s realism, since it gives the impression of being set in a town that doesn’t exist. I also noticed that, in the footage at the beginning which gave an impression of the time, there was a reference to CDs, which perhaps may have been that year’s hot new technology, but had yet to gain any real popularity: the first players were only released outside Asia that year, and the medium was not commonly used for popular music for a couple of years after that.

All in all, though, this is a well-made film, even if its conclusion was predictable given Combo’s record. I did not really expect the film to end when it did, but then, we were assured that “Milky” would be OK and we could all tell what was going to happen to Combo anyway. The characters who don’t join Combo’s Nazi gang don’t have much of a role afterwards, even Woody, who appears only once after they part ways after Combo’s speech. Woody isn’t really a hero even though he’s the nearest thing to one in the film (which is perhaps why he takes a back seat after the gang splits): he seems to want to be friends with everyone, and wants everyone to be friends, even if he’s not willing to sit around and be lectured, but was nowhere to be found when Combo and co were robbing the local Asians. None of the characters are cardboard cut-outs, and even Combo is made out to be disturbed rather than just evil, making some effort not to offend “Milky” and to be friends with him until he finally loses it in the end. It’s a disturbing and also very emotionally intense film in which all the characters are rounded and three-dimensional, but how relevant it is to the present situation, in which known racists are presenting themselves as “respectable” politicians rather more convincingly than they did in 1983, is debatable. I think this is a good period piece, but a period piece all the same.

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