Friday, February 20, 2009

Review: "This is England"

A less insightful critique would label writer/director Shane Meadows' autobiographical film "This is England" (2006) as merely "English History X", but it is far more than that. The similarities are present, insofar as it is a skinhead-coming-of-age picture. 
12-year-old Shaun (stellar newcomer Thomas Turgoose) has recently lost his father in the Falklands War. He wears bell-bottom pants that his father gave him, and is bullied for it at school. Being this is northern England circa 1983, he soon falls in with a group of older skinhead kids, whose friendliness greatly raises his self-esteem. This lonely adolescent finally has a clique to hang with; what follows (a shaved head and so on) is just a part of it and feels harmless enough. 
Shaun and his new friends run and frolic through rundown suburban England, and a care-free time is had by all, until the gang's former leader, Combo (pictured), returns from prison. Lines are drawn, and the "real" skinheads emerge. Brought to explosive, charismatic life by Liverpudlian actor Stephen Graham, Combo is a frighteningly real yet altogether otherworldly and unholy creation, a malevolent force to rival Heath Ledger's Joker or Daniel Day-Lewis' Bill the Butcher. 
Combo takes an immediate liking to Shaun, in whom he sees a younger version of himself. They seem made for each other; Shaun sees a father figure, and Combo is drawn to the boy's unadulterated, bully-induced rage and, probably, his moldable mind. It really is quite terrifying watching young Shaun slip obliviously into the depth of racism. Just the way "Paki bastard" bounds out of his mouth is horrifying, primarily because it is merely blind, child imitation. 
Meadows appears to have quite a talent for crafting realistic scenes that are alternately tight and loose. The camera never calls attention to itself, and it shouldn't; this is an actors showcase. Witness nonactor Turgoose perform beyond most of the ensemble. His Shaun is a witty, angry and precocious kid careening toward manhood. He is defined equally by his temper and his insightful wit. In one scene he will unflinchingly engage Combo in fisticuffs, while in the next he will shoot off lines like, "What are you giving her porn for? She has her own nipples." It is a wise and surprising performance, especially from a 13-year-old novice thespian. The only one who comes close is Graham as Combo. 
"This is England" is a brilliant film, which is at once soul-crushing and charmingly hilarious. See it and glimpse the dark side of The Clash's England. 

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