I think we prefer to think that thugs or otherwise violent sub-cultures as “totally other.” This Is England is a well crafted film that shows something discomfiting; it shows most of the same traits that those of us in polite society value also. Yes, they still remain other, but not totally so.
Shane Meadows directs a film that centers on and is carried by 12 year old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose). It is 1984 and Shaun’s father has recently been killed in the Falkland’s War. He is bullied at school due mainly to relative poverty than anything else. Taking a new way home, he runs into a group of half a dozen late teen skinheads. This group is led by Woody (Joseph Gilgun) who has an immediate soft spot for the obviously depressed boy. Woody and his group induct and introduce Shaun to wilding (basically going somewhere and wreaking as much havoc as they can).
Shortly after this, Combo (Stephen Graham) appears. He has returned from 3 years in prison. Combo gives a hate-filled speech where he attacks the Falkland’s war. Shaun stands up and starts throwing punches. After this, Combo throws up an ultimatum: be willing to fight for the England they want or to leave and essentially be poseurs. Woody and a few leave with him. This splits Shaun’s loyalty. Woody has been his protector but Combo offers an outlet for an expression of anger focused on something more than just childish wilding. What follows is anything but childish.
The themes in This Is England are not new, but they are presented in a new and very intimate way. Romper Stomper (1992) and American History X (1998) cover different parts of elements central to This Is England but in a different way. American History X does get its narrative from a teen, but Shaun is younger and his story a bit closer to desperate than that of Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong).
What Shaun finds is belonging and loyalty. The young and older men do more than treat Shaun as a mascot; they treat him as an equal. This is odd given the age differences but the dynamic works. This is because the film is so deeply intimate. There are lengthy scenes where Shaun wanders around his depressing part of Manchester. The music is so ironic that it cannot help but pull you deeper into this tale. In the other two movies I mentioned, the music was skinhead oriented. The music accompanying Shaun is mild strings and a quiet piano creating a sound of longing rather than a rage of any kind. Except for a couple of violent snippets of skinhead songs the entr’acte songs fit the overall yearning motif.
Impulse drives each character. One of the reasons that Shaun belongs so easily in this group is that they are all 12 years old in their own way. On the verge of puberty a boy cum man is impulsive in ways that are on one hand mature and the other very childish—this is the nature of those rites of passage. Some men get stuck in that state of not quite balanced limbo well past the end of their last growth spurt. This also makes the age difference easy to understand. Shaun is 12, Combo 32. There is every reason to believe that Combo never learned anything new after he reached Shaun’s age.
I want to say much more, but any more would ruin the film for someone who wants to see it. There are moments that will make most of us uncomfortable and should. But these moments do not control the film as a whole.
I do have this warning for those of us who tend to notice or harbor depression: the area of Manchester is run-down and grimy. Much of the film’s mood matches this decay. This doesn’t detract or distract from the story and its motives.
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