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Britain in the early ’80s was Margaret Thatcher in power, Duran Duran, the racist National Front, aerobics, and war with Argentina over some scattered rocks in the South Atlantic. What a terrific moment to be young and alienated.
Shane Meadows should know. His pitch-perfect This Is England, which opens with a montage of Thatcher and other phenomena mentioned above, is a semi-autobiographical account of a fatherless 12-year-old, angry butterball named Shaun (Thomas Turgoose). Miserable and adrift since his dad was killed in the Falklands, Shaun is bullied at school, and his mom (Jo Hartley) doesn’t really understand. The kid needs some friends his own age, but what he gets is acceptance by the local skinheads, led by the somewhat benevolent Woody (Joe Gilgun). Under his new boss’s supervision, Shaun is remade: buzz cut, checked shirt, suspenders, and heavy Doc Martens. Feeling as if he finally belongs somewhere, Shaun joyously engages in slo-mo poses with his new pals, to the sensuous lope of Toots and the Maytals, the Specials, and their musical fellow travelers.
Woody and his cohorts like to wear silly costumes and smash abandoned apartment blocks, but they’re not the most dangerous characters in town. (Like all of Meadows’ films, This Is England is set in the East Midlands, the director’s home region.) Woody even has a girlfriend, Lol (Vicky McClure), who takes at least as much motherly interest in Shaun as his mom does. The other members of the skins’ ladies auxiliary include Smell (Rosamund Hanson), a heavily made-up teenager who gives the 12-year-old kissing lessons. But then arrives a catalyst familiar from previous Meadows films like 1999’s A Room for Romeo Brass and 2002’s Once Upon a Time in the Midlands: the stranger in town.
Unlike in the spaghetti Westerns to which the writer-director sometimes playfully alludes, Meadows’ interlopers aren’t usually actual strangers. After all, why would the modern equivalent of a black-hatted outlaw drift into the housing projects outside Nottingham? So it is this time: Combo (Stephen Graham) is an old pal of Woody and the rest, just released from prison. It’s immediately made clear that Combo has always been volatile. He makes his return behind a new pal who threatens the skins with a knife, then reveals that the threat is just a joke.
In fact, Combo’s potential for violence is not so funny. He’s returned from jail with a vehement anti-immigrant agenda and is soon interrogating a non-white local skinhead, Milky (Andrew Shim), about his nationality. Milky gives the right answer, saying he’s English, not Jamaican. That seems to be fine with Combo, who’s more enraged at “Pakis” than blacks. In his first appearance, the ex-con gives a blistering stump speech. Soon, he’s taking his boys to a rural pub for a presentation by a National Front leader and flying the St. George’s Cross flag that represents England and only England. Combo’s xenophobia causes a split that has Woody and Lol heading for the door, but Shaun stays behind. Combo likes reggae and marijuana and tentatively accepts Milky, but he’s easily provoked, and no one’s safety is assured. The fury he aims at a local South Asian shopkeeper might potentially target anyone.
Empathetic yet unforgiving, This Is England could have been made only by someone with firsthand experience of the skinhead movement (or a similar youth-culture cult). Meadows hasn’t forgotten who he was, which explains why he works so deftly with young, unprofessional actors, eliciting heartfelt and unforced performances from Turgoose and the rest of his cast. The films’ characterization is entirely believable, and its dialogue is achingly realistic, whether the subject is race war, true love, or the cake Shaun brought Smell (rhymes with Michelle, you see). If some of Meadows’ previous bogeymen have been pure evil, Combo has his reasons, which are explained as well as such a man’s motivations can be. If far from sympathetic, Combo is as real as Shaun, Lol, or the Falklands War corpses shown in the film’s concluding montage. He’s not all of England, but he’s a part of it that can’t be denied.