A period coming-of-age piece set among the skinheads of a grubby seaside town in Thatcher-era Britain, Shane Meadows’ semi-autobiographical “This Is England” takes some effort for American audiences to appreciate—the dialect is sometimes difficult to understand and the historical details may be unfamiliar—but the picture is worth the trouble. It’s not only a moving human portrait of a boy growing up in painful circumstances, but juxtaposing his story—a reflection of the domestic strife the prime minister’s domestic policies brought to 1983 England—with her recently-ended Falklands War gives the narrative deeper undercurrents.
Meadows’ surrogate here is eleven-year old Shaun (newcomer Thomas Turgoose, both pugnacious and realistically sensitive), whose father died in the Falklands and whose mother struggles to make ends meet. The friendless, bullied boy finally finds some companionship when he runs into a band of skinheads led by good-natured Woody (Joe Gilgun). As the script makes clear, these early “gangs” weren’t the racist thugs their name almost immediately calls to mind, but just rambunctious, rebellious, strangely-dressed youths devoted to music with a Caribbean beat. Shaun becomes a kind of mascot to the group, finally discovering the sense of belonging he’d lacked.
For awhile things go reasonably well, but the mood changes when Combo (Stephen Graham), a convict who’d been a friend of Woody’s, returns to town. Under his influence the gang splits into two factions, one reflecting his racist attitude and moving into vague alliance with a crypto-fascist political movement. Shaun abandons the amiable Woody and joins Combo’s group, but learns what that really means when the implications of his new father figure’s inchoate views are revealed in Combo’s treatment of Milky (Andrew Shim), a Jamaican teen still aligned with Woody’s band.
The story arc of “This Is England” is hardly revolutionary—a kid has to decide between good and bad influences that may determine how his life goes—but the picture is distinguished by its gritty sense of place, performances—especially by young Turgoose—that have the ring of truth, and a refusal to degenerate into simplistic didacticism. (In Graham’s hands, even Combo isn’t just a monochromatic villain.) The hatred of Thatcherism as a seedbed of racial and class division is palpable—as is a condemnation of militarism as a means of generating political support that has contemporary relevance—but the message aren’t permitted to overwhelm the dramatic power of the personal stories.
The previous Meadows films that were released in this country—“24/7” and “A Room for Romeo Brass”—both had their virtues, but were ultimately too shapeless to recommend. “This Is England” is somewhat ragged, too, but in this case the quality suits the material. It’s the rare coming-of-age tale that offers real historical resonance rather than mere nostalgia.