Unlike the last time I reviewed a film, when I felt compelled by virulent dislike so to do, I was moved and surprised by This is England, Shane Meadows’s 2007 movie about restless 80s youth in a shitty northern town. At the start, the film’s world is shaped by Thatcher and the Falklands and council housing and having no money; the youth, as is their wont, are acting out and wearing silly clothes.
Twelve-year-old Sean, whose father died in the Falklands, is left with a young and loving (if kind of dotty) mother, a pair of uncool jeans, and a big hole in his heart. Finding refuge from his various neighborhood persecutors, he becomes the little brother and mascot to a group of lovable non-racist skinheads (the sharp-dressing reggae kind, which were apparently a thing, not the white power murderous kind). Together, they get up to minor destruction and harmless hijinks. Then a couple of old friends show up, newly minted ultra-nationals fresh from a stint in jail. Lines are drawn, choices are made, and suddenly the film gets stops being carefree and comic with a cheerful Specials and Toots soundtrack, and the threat of violence immediately becomes ever-present and terrifying.
The movie has a couple of problems, namely the “sad music” selection accompanying some of the serious scenes, and its abrupt denouement. I would have liked the film to be longer and to see what happened to everyone, mostly because I was so engaged by the incredible performances–especially by Tom Turgoose, who plays the young feller Sean, and Stephen Graham, who plays Combo the nazi–as well as the great, if sometimes unintelligible dialogue and the glimpse afforded into this particular zeitgeist. It reminded me not a little of David Mitchell’s wonderful novel Black Swan Green, if only because of the Thatcher and the Falklands and the dialogue and the teen angst.
Basically, it’s a movie about the dangers of poverty and powerlessness, the aching hearts of youth, and the horrors of prejudice. Since, in my crude estimation, 20% of every story ever told is about these things, as a film This is England doesn’t break new ground on the human experience. But it is mesmerizing in its specificity, and the acting is spectacular. And, unfortunately, although the film’s milieu is now almost three decades old, the rampant unemployment, the ignorance, and the attendant nativism it relates are not unrecognizable today.