MOVIES THAT DON’T SUCK: Director pays tribute to skinheads and ska in ‘This is England’

When viewing a film that deals exclusively with a certain subculture, it helps if you know something about that subculture  before watching,

Therefore, as someone who was born long after Margaret Thatcher’s administration in a place far, far removed from the U.K., I feel no shame in admitting that I used Wikipedia to catch myself up on the world of “This is England.”

The film focuses on a young boy named Shaun Fields (Thomas Turgoose), who lives with his recently widowed mother  in a small, unnamed Midlands town in 1983.

After a particularly nasty day at the hands of a few school bullies, Shaun meets a gang of teenage skinheads and is soon “adopted” into their group by Woody (Joseph Gilgun), their leader.

Soon Shaun dons the official “skinhead uniform” (a shaved head, boots, jeans, and a Ben Sherman shirt), and becomes an official part of the group.

However, things take a turn for the worse when Woody’s friend Combo (Stephen Graham) is released from prison. While Woody is glad to see him, his return creates some tensions because Combo— in addition to being a diehard English nationalist and harboring a burning hatred for Pakistani immigrants—is a sociopath.

He must be really fun at weddings.

Becoming increasingly vocal about his social views, Combo splits Woody’s group in two. He gets Shaun to come with him by telling Shaun that his father, who has recently died in the Falklands War, would want him to rally against the Pakistanis and Thatcherism and everything else he deems wrong with the country.

Of course, I’m even more ignorant about these topics than Shaun was, but that’s where Wikipedia comes in.

Needless to say, things do not turn out well as Combo becomes increasingly unstable in his actions.

What stands out most about the film is its realism. Because directory Shane Meadows grew up in Staffordshire and experienced many of the same things that Shaun and his friends experience, the film takes on an autobiographical tone.

Meadows could have just made a documentary chronicling the division between the original skinhead subculture and those who wanted it to be a focus of anti-immigration and nationalism, but he didn’t. Instead, he chose to chronicle that phenomenon through Shaun’s eyes as he’s introduced to skinheads on both ends of the spectrum.

“This Is England” is wonderfully atmospheric. Much of it was filmed in Nottingham and features the dilapidated, graffiti-stained brick of the town’s poorer areas as major set pieces in the drama.

The characters are all swathed in traditional ’80s dress. My personal favorite (not so much for artistry as for authenticity) is Shaun’s mother, who sports a ridiculous perm and enormous glasses. The skinheads are all dressed according to their culture, but are varied enough to keep themselves interesting.

Of course, what is an ’80s movie without ’80s music? The token “Come on Eileen” appears as well as “Tainted Love.” However, the soundtrack also includes a few Ska and Rocksteady tunes in accordance to laws of skinhead culture. The most notable of these is “54-46 (That’s My Number)” by Toots and the Maytals that plays over the sublime opening montage that showcases the violence of the early ’80s in the UK with a banner proudly proclaiming “This Is England.”

Turgoose’s character is a bit of an ass, and he plays it well. Even before he joins up with the gang, he still swaggers around, only pausing from talking back to his bullies in his spitting Midlands accent to punch them in the face.

Although his dramatic acting skills aren’t  perfect (he sometimes feels a little flat, but that’s partly due to who he is as a character), Turgoose thoroughly impressed me by the way he managed to convey the part of a kid who feels lost and alone.

Kudos also goes to Stephen Graham for his portrayal of Combo. What I found most satisfying in Combo’s character is that I never really felt like he was a horrible person through and through.

While Combo is extremely easy to hate, it’s important to remember that he’s very much a product of his environment. In the explosive ending of the film (I’ll stick to being vague to keep this spoiler-free), even as Combo is committing an unwarranted and vicious act of violence, we see all the suffering behind it as he yells “I hate you,” to a person who has done no wrong but to be foreign.

I think Combo himself put it best when he tells Shaun that he sees Shaun as a younger version of himself.  Because had it not been for Shaun’s bad experiences with Combo, Shaun could have very well turned out as bitter and hateful as the story’s main “villain.”

At its heart, “This Is England” is a director’s tribute to a culture. While something that hits that close to home is always in danger of devolving into pointless nostalgia, Meadows delivers a snapshot of a subculture that both romanticizes and condemns the entire movement.

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