The critics were clambering over themselves to praise this one, and though I was eager to see what all the fuss was about, there was also a sense of trepidation. British films seem to fall into two categories. Either painting England as a bright, cosmopolitan London street filled with quirky people who say ‘bugger’ and fall in love within twenty seconds. Or they’re grimmer than the Grimm Brothers. A story about skinheads in the 80s made me suspect this would be grim-central. I was preparing myself for a rough (shaven-headed) ride. This is England, after all.
The film centres on twelve year-old Shaun, who’s lost his daddy in the Falklands War and finds unlikely camaraderie with a bunch of brace-wearing, doc-martin laden skin heads. But it’s not as nasty as it seems. Far from it, in fact. This bunch, lead by the charismatic Woody, are nice, energetic guys who like to hang out. That’s all. They take Shaun under their wing, go to a few house parties, chill out in the local café. It looks like great fun. But then big skinhead Combo comes home from prison with some interesting ideas about sending the non-British “back home”. He likes angry, threatening fun. Oh dear…
Yet despite the grotty 80s setting and questionable nature of many of the characters, This is England is at times warm, funny and engrossing. Dialogue flows naturally from an utterly likeable cast, drawing humour from the slightest inflection or gesture. Thomas Turgoose, who was thirteen at the time of filming, is a cracking little actor, and he carries the weight of the film with ease. For much of the first half I watched with a smile on my face at the good, honest entertainment beaming back at me.
But don’t get me wrong. This is England definitely packs a punch - actually, more like a head-butt to the face. There’s a distinct lack of violence throughout the majority of the film, but under all the fun and laughs of Woody and co is the underlying fear. As Combo makes his way on to screen, that fear becomes threatening. And rather than rely only on the nasty side of things, director and writer Shane Meadows goes for the heart strings too. Watching young Shaun whimper about his father yanks at the heart strings - like The Lion King, but with skinheads.
Wrap up the fun, fear and emotion of the basic plot and characters and you’ve got a strong film. Add in the blindingly obvious issues that resonate with every single thing happening today, and you‘ve got a film with mega weight. People dying in unnecessary war, unrest in the populace, enigmatic leaders bringing about extremist groups. It’s a tad depressing that we’ve changed the branding but haven’t actually moved very far in the last twenty years. Meadows uses a tight film to show us This is indeed England. Buggering hell.
A powerful film that’ll leave you shaken, but with laughter to at least soften the blow, This is England clocks up a mighty CF4. Watch it.